Mars Watch '97

Subject: Mars Watch '97
Date: Fri, 21 Mar 1997 23:53:06 -0500 (EST)

Last week on March 14 we went out for our second astromony night and this
time we were able to view Mars.  We continue to be assisted by our parent
astronomer who graciously had us up to his house in the hills where he
literally has an "observatory" up at the end of his back yard.  We were
delighted to see huge telescopes pointed upward, there for our viewing
pleasure!  Our goals were to attempt to plot Mars between 2 stars and to see
if we could actually do a little mapping of the Mars surface.  

Our plotting was to be done with our "quadrant" which we made with the
protractor and the split straw.  We used the stars Regulus and Denebola (main
stars from the constellations Leo and Virgo) and tried to measure the
distance in degrees between Mars and each of these two stars.  It was very
difficult.  We realized that our instruments had limitations and we discussed
what we could do to improve them.  This was real science in action, we told
them.  Back to the drawing board to improve an instrument is what scientists
do all the time.  (I think I like the instrument demonstrated on the LFM Web
Page).  We did get a few students (and our astronomer) who were able to get
some measurements that were pretty accurate and they were duly recorded.

Our next objective - mapping the surface.  I created worksheets with circles
for sketching as well as sections for the students to fill in with various
specifics; i.e. what type of telescope, how strong (200x), what kinds of
filters, etc.  We were all able to see some definite shadows on the left and
right sides of the surface and some of us saw clouds at the tip.  As
amateurs, our eyes weren't very well trained, but if we relaxed and spent a
bit of time at it, we could make out more and more.  By telling us what the
Central Meridian measurement was for that night, our astronomer was able to
help us figure out what part of Mars we were seeing.  He was also able to
tell us the orientation, which helped us figure out what part of Mars was at
the top of the telescope.  We went back to our work table (lit by red light
bulbs) and pulled out our maps of Mars.  It was amazing!  What we saw and
sketched matched exactly with dark patches on the Mars map and we were able
to identify them as specific plains regions, both low and high.  We also
"believe" that the clouds we were seeing were over the volcano region (if our
orientation was correct).

Back at school on Monday, we took out our recorded measurements.  Each
student group had a copy of a star chart that has a grid (like latitude and
longitude).  Using the grid on the chart, we converted degrees to millimeters
and using a drawing compass, we marked the distances from the stars Regulus
and Denebola and drew 2 arcs.  Where the arcs intercepted was Mars (there
were of course 2 places where the arcs intercepted, but we used our common
sense and memory of the night sky to tell us which of the 2 had been Mars).
 There - we had our first marking.  Now we will have to do weekly
measurements until our next Mars gathering in 3 weeks or so.  Hopefully, we
will be able to see Comet Hale Bopp that night.  (By the way, the stories of
the schools who are getting together in the pre-dawn hours to view Hale-Bopp
are terrific and amazing!)

I am getting addicted to looking up in the night sky every night, searching
for Mars and other constellations that we are gradually learning about.  I
know some of my students are too.  Thanks again, LFM.

Theresa Hall
Paradise Canyon Elementary
La Canada, CA