Flares have been sighted on Mars

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Rick Fienberg and Gary Seronik, Sky & Telescope, June 7, 2001

Attention all Mars observers: Flares have been sighted in Edom Promontorium!

In the May 2001 issue of SKY & TELESCOPE (pages 115 to 123), Thomas Dobbins and William Sheehan discussed rare historical observations of bright, star-like flares from certain regions on the planet Mars. They suggested that the flares might be caused by specular reflections of sunlight off water-ice crystals in surface frosts or atmospheric clouds, specifically at times when the sub-Sun and sub-Earth points were nearly coincident and near the planet's central meridian (the imaginary line running down the center of the visible disk from pole to pole).

Based on their analysis, Dobbins and Sheehan predicted that flares like those last reported in 1958 might erupt this week in Edom Promontorium, near the Martian equator at longitude 345 degrees. Dobbins organized an expedition to the Florida Keys, where Mars would ride high in the south under exceptionally steady skies. Expedition members observed the planet using a variety of telescopes nightly beginning June 3rd. No flares were seen for several nights. But on June 7th, beginning around 06:40 UT (2:40 Eastern daylight time), about 80 minutes before Edom crossed the central meridian, the team observed a series of brightenings. Each lasted perhaps 3 to 5 seconds; they occurred sporadically over the next 90 minutes or so, until clouds ended the observations. At times Edom appeared to pulse with a period of 10 to 15 seconds for a minute or two. The flares were seen visually at about 300 power through two homemade 6-inch (15-centimeter) Newtonian reflectors (one f/6, the other f/8) by Dobbins, Donald Parker, Gary Seronik, Rick Fienberg, and David Moore and were recorded on video at 1,400 power through a Meade 12-inch (30-cm) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope by Parker and Tippy D'Auria. Visually, the flares seemed to cut the dark linear feature Sinus Sabaeus nearly in two.

Mars observers in North America, especially the western half, are encouraged to observe the planet visually and to record it on video over the next two or three nights, when conditions will continue to favor flares in Edom. Observing reports -- including your location, Universal date and time, telescope/equipment description, sky conditions, and any other relevant details -- should be sent to the Mars sections of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers and British Astronomical Association, as well as the International Mars Watch.

Clear skies!

-- Rick Fienberg and Gary Seronik, SKY & TELESCOPE


Holger Isenberg
[email protected]