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Capturing the Red Planet

This summer, Mars is making a historic appearance in the night sky, coming closer to Earth than at any time in human history. For space author and Morning Edition commentator Andrew Chaikin, the event became a quest to take a rare astronomical portrait.

Like countless amateur astronomers, I was looking forward to getting a once-in-a-lifetime look at Mars this summer. But it wasn't until a few months ago that I found out there was a special bonus in store. Seen from Florida on the morning of July 17, the moon would pass in front of Mars. I knew the event, called an occultation, was something rare. And I knew it would make a spectacular photo-op.

In 1967, when I was 11 years old, National Geographic published a black-and-white, telescopic photograph of an occultation from 1911. In that photo, the moon is a huge, cratered ball, and Mars -- which is twice as big as the moon -- looks like a tiny pebble. Compared to Mars, the moon seems as close and familiar as a next-door neighbor. That picture was saying, "You think you know what far away is? Look at this." And it gave me chills.

For me, taking my own occultation photograph became a personal mission. But carrying out my mission wasn't going to be easy. Last summer, looking ahead to this summer, I'd bought a new 11-inch telescope. Then I'd found out about a special kind of webcam -- a digital video camera the size of a large egg -- that was perfect for taking telescopic pictures of planets. But at that point my work was just beginning.

For months I struggled to learn the techniques of astrophotography. I talked to other amateurs, who gave me tips about how to get the best images, like the right software to use to process them on my computer. I learned how to test my telescope's optics to see if they were properly aligned -- and how to adjust them if they weren't. I knew I'd only have one chance to take my photos, and I didn't want to blow it.

But when summer arrived in Boston I realized I had another problem: Humidity. During an observing session, moisture sometimes condensed on my telescope's lens, causing the image to fade. I knew the problem would be worse in Florida. All my preparation would be wasted if the telescope fogged at the crucial moment. At home, I could easily de-fog the lens with a blast from a hair drier -- but how would I run a hair drier in the middle of nowhere? Just days before my departure I managed to find a tiny hair drier and a 1,500-watt inverter that would run off the same portable power supply I was using to operate the telescope.

As I headed to Florida, with my 60-pound telescope and all its gear, I was still worried. Maybe the hair drier wouldn't do the job. Maybe I would screw up the photographs. Or even if I did everything right, maybe the weather would be bad. As my mother pointed out, "You know that's the time when they have hurricanes."

Mom was right. I like long road trips, but I did not enjoy driving all the way through Georgia and into Florida in torrential rain, which turned out to be the outer fringes of hurricane Claudette. The first night after I arrived, I planned to get up after midnight and shoot some practice images, but it was still cloudy -- not a good sign. The next night was clear, and I managed to get my practice session. But I realized I needed something to put all my extra gear on, where I could get to it quickly. So the evening before the occultation, when I should have been in bed, I went to that well-known purveyor of scientific equipment, Wal-Mart, and got an aluminum ladder. Back at my motel, I found myself too keyed up to sleep more than a couple of hours. At 1 a.m., I loaded the car and drove to the observing site -- a deserted country road about 15 miles from Lake Okeechobee. By 3 a.m. I'd been joined by six other Mars gazers, each with his own telescope, for the big event. As I looked up at Mars and the moon, I thought of them as two celebrated performers coming together for a rare joint appearance. And we had front-row seats. But I knew that to get my pictures, I would have to perform, too.

As the others checked out their telescopes, I waited nervously, glancing at my watch. If I set up too early, my telescope might be fogged before the occultation started. But if I didn't give myself enough time to get ready, I might miss part of the event.

Meanwhile, next to me on a sandy patch of ground, Chris Stephan, who organized our little expedition, was already set up and looking at the moon. A former high school science teacher from Sebring, Fla., Chris seemed to have everything under control.

"This is the eyepiece for you to use," Chris said. "Look how crystal clear because of the planets and stuff. ...Beautiful view of the moon here."

And before long, it wasn't just the moon Chris could see through his eyepiece. Mars was closing in. Chris could see it as a small, pinkish disc with a bright white polar cap.

"Looks like an eyeball facing the moon with the southern polar cap," Chris said. "Very lovely."

Meanwhile, I was facing my first crisis of the night. My telescope has its own built-in computer that uses data from a Global Positioning Satellite to figure out where it is, and track celestial objects. I ran through the setup procedure I'd done dozens of times before, getting the ‘scope aligned with the stars, but when I was just about to point it at Mars, I pushed a button too soon -- and the controls froze. "Oh God," I thought, "please tell me this telescope hasn't stopped working." It hadn't. When I re-did the startup, everything was fine, and soon I was pointed at Mars. Because I was using higher magnification than Chris, I couldn't see the moon yet. But on the screen of my laptop computer, there was the familiar face of Mars, about the size of a dime, loud and clear. And not a moment too soon: The occultation was about to begin.

Suddenly, the image began to fade -- the telescope was fogging up! Now was the moment of truth.

"Okay, it's time for the old hair drier," I said.

The hair drier would have to work -- and it did. When I went back to the laptop, Mars was hovering above the moon's jagged edge like an alien spaceship coming in for a landing.

"Oh, look at that!" I said.

Actually it was the moon's motion in its orbit that made the two worlds appear to come together. And as we watched, the moon slowly began to swallow the Red Planet.

"The polar cap is starting to get covered. Look at that go!" I said.

"Look at that -- gorgeous! I love it!" Chris added.

"God, that's incredible," I said.

Part of the moon was in darkness, and as it moved past Mars we could actually see the silhouettes of lunar mountains and craters against the planet's bright orange disk.

"Look at the little valley coming in here now," Chris said. "See the little valley? See that little dip? And you can see the polar cap popping out the dip. Look at that! See that, Earl? That is exciting!"

Now I switched to higher magnification, and the vast distance between me and Mars seemed to melt away. I was looking at a world that was 44 million miles away, but still, I felt as if I were exploring it.

"Oh, look at that baby!" I said.

"Isn't that neat," Chris said. "Look at that coming out."

"Look at that, guys!" I said.

"Isn't that exciting." Chris said.

As the occultation ended, Mars and the moon slowly drifted apart, as if they wanted to prolong their rare encounter. I know I was sorry to see it end. For me, this was more than just a test of my new astrophotography skills. All my life I've wanted to visit other planets, knowing I'd never be able to. But for a moment, on this special morning, I felt like I'd made the trip. And I even had the pictures to prove it.

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