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2003 - Observing the 'canali' on Mars!

2003 was a very special year for me. I fulfilled my dream of getting my first telescope. It was a Saxon (A Melbourne version of Celestron or Meade), an 8" Dobsonian, of f/5 focal length. I had wanted an Orion 10" f/6, (the longer focal ratio and increased diameter improves resolution). Alas it was not to be. With money in hand, we turned up at the store and they were all out of stock. (That store is no longer there). Thus my first scope was ordered online instead. It was the 8" Skywatcher, one of the few telescopes of an easily available alt-azimuth Dobsonian mount available in Australia at the time (now they sell much bigger ones!). These scopes have since grown more popular among amateurs and seem to be replacing the more expensive Schmidt-Cassegrain as reflector of choice.

When I finally got my telescope, c.2003, I was not really sure what I wanted to do with it. I first saw the rings of Saturn in about 2001 at a Star Party, through a twelve inch motorised Schmidt Cassegraian. This view was absolutely incredible and it was impossible to suppress an `oh wow!' Saturn looked beyond amazing. The view was crystal clear. One thing which is apparent is that Saturn with the rings looks fake. It looks like a toy bauble, floating in space, yet it is as real as it gets!

I eventually got a cheap 8" f/5 Dobsonian, a Saxon. This is the scope I have used ever since. F/5 is quite short, even for a dobsonian, and especially a traditional telescope, but that is the way the trend is heading for reflectors. `F/5' means the legnth is five times the width, so it is 20cm wide and a meter long. During the 80s I was frustrated by the prevalence of equatorially mounted telescopes which were extremely expensive. When I looked up scopes in 2003 I was shocked to see a new design I had never seen in the astronomy books, the Dobsonian, (known of in California since the 70s, but not in Australia, or at least not to me!) a simple alt azimuth design that I had always dreamed about. It is good because you do not need to align it to due south, whenever you use it. (I am in the southern hemisphere). The other reason a dobsonian is excellent, is that one can afford to buy it.

My telescope finally arrived by freight. After setting it up, I had a good look at Saturn. I was greatly impressed. The view was not as great as would have been seen in finer scopes: the Cassini division between the rings, discovered in the seventeenth century, (in days when men had far worse telescopes), was barely discernible.

So what to look at! One of the reasons for getting such is short focal length telescope is to have a wide field of view for deep-space objects, such as galaxies. I thus eagerly sought out galaxies in star maps and moved the telescope towards them, only to discover there was very little to be seen. M104, the famous Sombrero Hat Galaxy was barely discernible in my city location. There was maybe just a faint hint of it... if I imagined hard enough, with averted vision. Quite simply, the city lights make the sky brighter than the light of the galaxies, which is trying to peak through.

Planets, however, are unaffected by city lights. Presumably the reason is that they are much brighter than stars.

Mars and when to observe it

The good thing about 2003 was that Mars would make a fabulous appearance, in August of that year. It would not only be in opposition, (on the same side of the sun as Earth, and thus 'close'), but it would be a Perihelic opposition! (Planets have elliptical orbits. A perihelion is the closest point to the Sun in a planet's elliptical orbit. This would also make it closer to Earth). It was a once in 60,000 year opportunity!

Basically, Neanders, or Boskops, or our Cro Magnon ancestors would have been looking up at the sky. The druids would have noticed a strange difference in the heavens. One can imagine such a scenario.

`It grows with each day... closer and closer.' `What will we do?' The druid paused in contemplation.


Alarm may have grown in some tribes, at the time of the opposition. In some other tribes, perhaps less astronomically inclined, a man might have looked up in the sky and wondered why that red thing was suddenly larger than normal. In a few weeks it had retreated again and all was but a strange memory, unverifiable. `Did that really happen?'

Thus Mars, usually a tiny barely discernible red dot, grew into a somewhat more intimidating red orb high in the sky. At its closest, in late August, I observed it above the garage from my driveway in the setting sun, and timed the moment at which it was closest, for observation. I swear, I could easily make out a disk with the naked eye. That is how frighteningly close it had become. It no longer resembled one of the stars... it was an intimidating spot of red fire, a 'comet' looming overhead and about to crash into Earth. It was a new and alien skyscape for us on Earth! It could almost have been seen as a distant moon of Earth, were we not better informed. It was incredible.

I had always thought that planetary work would be rather boring compared to awesome deep sky, but was I in for a surprise! For me, looking at this little planet with the scope, and drawing the features, was one of the most exciting adventures of my life!

I began to read and read all about Mars! Every day I would go out in the evening and would notice that red dot getting bigger and bigger. I read in the history books, and online, about a wealthy Boston millionaire and mathematician called Percival Lowell. I desperately wanted to see what he saw... canals! Was my scope big enough? He had used a 24 inch refractor which had cost an enormous amount to build, just to study the red planet during a favourable opposition. He had also situated his scope in a place of supreme seeing. That is to say the sky was rather still, with little atmospheric turbulence.

I was reassured by two things... 1) Mars was far closer in this opposition that Lowell had ever seen it, and 2) Lowell and others had seen the canals with as little as an eight inch refractor. Brilliant!

Lowell had been inspired by an Italian astronomer of the name Giovanni Shiaparelli. Basically, Schiaparelli started seeing canals on the surface of the planet in the 1880s.

Map of Mars by Giovanni Shiaparelli, 1877.

Schiaparelli made a second map for the next opposition, three years later. In this map, the canals look more 'man made'. It is perhaps a bit of a popular myth that Shiaparelli's canali is a 'mistranslation', and that he really meant 'channels', rather than English canals. Perhaps he did, but it seems he really did mean canals later on, and seemed to suspect they were artificial. Here are his sketches, from I believe 1881-1882. He noticed a phenomenon called 'twinning' in which canals seemed to have split apart and were double tracked, some of the time.


Lowell was hugely captivated by Schiaparelli's findings. Here are some of his strange 'pre-art deco' drawings of the canals on Mars. These were made at the end of the 19th century, and towards the beginning of the 20th century.

Lowell pieced all his drawings together to make this map of Mars, made with his 24" Refractor at Flagstaff, Arizona.

That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort of other we may consider as certain as it is uncertain what those beings may be.
~ Percival Lowell ~

One of the reasons that Lowell made this statement is that there is a phenomenon, forgotten these days, except to observational enthusiasts, there there is an apparent 'wave of darkening' across Mars as the seasons progress. This is either seasonal-weather related, or seasonal-biological, like trees losing their leaves in autumn. Basically the surface features, including canals get considerably darker as summer approaches. Naturally, this was assumed to have been caused by the melting of the waters of the ice caps (which have been found to contain considerable water as well as dry ice). This wave of darkening assisted me tremendously, as I was finally make out some of the features seen in his maps, towards the end of the Martian observing season. A lot of people, Lowell included, initially cannot see the canals, but later do see them!

(MAJOR UPDATE! May 2015. A few days ago I noticed a post in the Mars Rover updates on facebook. Essentially, this article appeared... is this phenomenon the same as the wave of darkening?)

`Mars Rover Landing Zone Scars Have Curiously Darkened'

As Mars got bigger and bigger, I began to draw what I saw. There was not much at first, very faint outlines. I had to look for about ten minutes before I could even see anything. Finally my brain would begin to piece it all together, and I would begin to draw! To my great relief, my drawings improved as the weeks went by and I learned to be an observer. Training the brain to see through the eyepiece is a lot harder than it sounds. There are many little tricks, such as patience, averted vision, giggling the eyepiece, etc. It is the mind which forms pictures based upon what the eyeball gives it.

One day, I had the telescope set up on the back veranda during the day time and was busy sketching the moon. Then suddenly, I spotted Mars, fully visible in daylight. I decided to begin sketching it. By this time, Mars was rapidly receding, getting smaller with each day that went by, so I was running out of time to see the fabled canals, which had so eluded me! Even if they were mere tricks of the light, they would surely be visible!

I swung the telescope around to look at Mars. A relatively featureless plain of the planet was presented towards Earth. I observed for about ten minutes and then I noticed something. I could see Schiaparelli's canals! I called my brother over. 'Ummmmm... I think I can see the canals!' The so-called canals which `do not exist' were very visible to me! I drew them. I let my brother have a look and he too could see them! The seeing conditions were truly optimal and the canals were clearly visible, even if they are not really there.

Here are a few of the sketches I made of this elusive planet. Upper left sketch represents very clear 'canals', almost as dark as the rest of the conventional Martian features.

Anyway, this is my map of Mars, assembled from about 60 diagrams of the planet, made mainly as Mars was receding away from the Earth, after the 27 August Opposition. Syrtis Major (bold), is very prominent. It is a huge mountain range. The 'canals' which are really perhaps mountain ranges, (or canyons according to Ben Bova in his Mars sci fi) are drawn in exaggerated shading as they are normally not visible, except in what I would call 'peculiar' seeing conditions. The map is representative of the Shiaparellian curved canals, not the straight Lowellian ones, which were not seen. Those may have been tricks of the light. I flatter myself that it looks quite similar to the Hubble Space Telescope Image of Mars, made in 2003, (below).


I strongly suspect that NASA cameras, (and cameras in general), are not sensitive to the light frequency required to 'see' the canals, they are after all, pure lenses, not lenses whose imagery are mediated by brains, required to piece images together in a certain way. We see with our minds, our eyes are an instrument. Furthermore, when we observe, we see a moving image, not a static image.

There appear to be shadows of the canals evident on the Hubble photographs, but as always, they simply do not show up very well on photographs at all! Several 'canals' look like strings of craters.

I have a number of theories regarding the Martian Canals:

1) They are strings of bacterial life living on mountain ranges which, as on earth, approximate straight or bent lines. These change in colour with the seasons. It used to be thought that the wave of darkening was caused by the plants appearing in the land irrigated by canals.

2) They are a mind presentation, imagination, an interaction of left and right brain. They are a spiritual vision of a vanished civilisation... a presentation by God, to humanity, of what may one day occur on Earth... desolation and ruin. The vision of Mars as a doomed older world is prevalent in C.S. Lewis science fiction, P. Lowell science fiction, and elsewhere.

3) The canals are actually 'there' but are evident in a wavelength not visible to the human eye, or by cameras which tend to pick up the infra-red to visible wavelength. The fact is, some astronomers can see them, and some cannot. This tells me a particular wavelength, (or type of imagination!) is required. Patrick Moore spent 70 years observing Mars and professed never to have seen a canal, (yet his map appears to contain at least two....Patrick Moore on Mars, 1998, p. 92). Some famous astronomers have seen canals, most have not.

4) Even if they are mere strings of craters, the 'wave of darkening', if real, suggests something seasonal and mysterious is going on.

In Conclusion

To conclude, I think there is a canal phenomenon which is not being investigated, and it cannot all be attributed to tricks of the human eye. I think the basis of the canal phenomenon is essentially, life, which is why this phenomenon is so elusive, and transient. There would of course be more than one component to it, more than one explanation. It is part trick of the light, part trick of the eye, the mental stacking of images and imagination, but perhaps also, part real. Do we totally delude ourselves?

This was one of the greatest projects and adventures of my life! I love this stuff!
Written, c.2010, updated May 2015.

P.S. I hope you have found this useful. If so please drop me a line. Feedback is very much appreciated.


Moore, Patrick, Patrick Moore on Mars, 1998.

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