The Solar System

as imaged by Bobby Middleton

The Heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Psalms 19-1.

MARS The red planet is probably more like Earth than any other planet in the solar system, but it is smaller. Its size can make it a challenging target. About every two years its orbit and Earth's orbit bring them close enough to each other to make imaging of surface detail possible by amateur telescopes. Mars made it's last close approach in June of 2001 and was 21 arc seconds in size. Mars will be even nearer for this upcoming close pass in  Aug of 2003 at 25 arc seconds. This is as close as Mars and Earth have been in over 50,000 years!

Below are two seasons of Mars images made with a 12.5" f/7 Newtonian telescope and st-237 CCD camera. 


Here are two Mars images from 2001. The left image is from June 3 at 7:45 UT. Mars had an apparent size of 19.6 arc seconds at this time. The right image is from June 10 at 6:30 UT. Slightly larger in apparent size it was 20.3 arc seconds. Syrtis Major is the dominant feature that looks like the continent of Africa. Just weeks after these images  were made, Mars was engulfed in a global dust storm which totally obscured the planet's features for months.


Left is an image of Mars made during 2003. The 2003 cycle will bring Mars closer to Earth than it has been in several thousand years, climaxing in late August at over 25 arc seconds apparent size. This image was made on July 18, 10:25 UT. Mars was 20.68" in diameter and at 94 % phase.  Note the position of the southern polar cap (top) in comparison to the 2001 images. Earth is at a slightly different plane in 2003 giving us a more tilted view at the top polar cap.  

The right image was made just a few days (July 27) after the first image at left. It was made at just about the same time (5:30 UT) and the 26 hour day length of Mars has let the central meridian move slightly toward the evening limb (on left). There is some slight haze at the north polar region on the bottom. The dominant feature seen is Mare Erythraeum at center with its finger-like dark features running down and away from it. Size = 21.6; Phase = 95 %.  

This image from Aug 15 2003 is getting close to Mar's largest apparent size. It is 24.6 arc seconds and 99% phase. It's peak size is 25.1 " on Aug 28. The south polar cap (top of image) is much smaller than in the earlier 2003 images because the Martian southern hemisphere is nearing Martian summer. Sublimating  frozen CO2 leaves ice crystal clouds in the Martian atmosphere and the resulting blue haze clouds are faintly seen at bottom near the north polar region. These "limb clouds" and "polar hoods" were much more prominent in the 2001 images above.    

VENUS Our sister planet is quite different than Earth except for its size and closeness to us. Its surface is always hidden by a thick veil of clouds. Earth-bound telescopes can capture some cloud detail if photographed in ultraviolet light. It also goes through phases much like the moon, and never rises very high in the horizon.

A crescent phase Venus with a 1/125 sec exposure on Kodak VPS 160 film; f32.


JUPITER Jupiter is the planet with the most to see and photograph. Cloud bands and oval storms are not hard to photograph with good seeing. They change shapes and colors from year to year. Jupiter's four major moons also offer up a ballet of eclipses and shadow transits moving across its giant disc.

The Great Red Spot is approaching the planet's limb at the left. Note the long disturbance in the southern equatorial belt that trails behind it. Also note that several dim blue festoons hang down in comma-like fashion from the top (northern) equatorial belt. Jupiter was at opposition for these photos. Observe the differences in its cloud patterns then and in the 1999 image 3 pictures below.


Jupiter just after opposition, 9-28-98. Note the 3 small, very dim disks of Io, Ganymeade, and Europa out to the side of the planet. Ganymede's larger size can be verified by observing its brighter image.


Here is one of my CCD tri-color images of Jupiter. I obtained this image on one of my first attempts with a CCD camera. As one can see, it far outdoes the resolution of over 2 years worth of my best planetary photographs.  This image was made on 9-28-00 at 9:45 UT. The great red spot has darkened much since 1999. This is made with the 12.5" Newt.   

Here is my first image of the 2001 season, made on 8-11-01. This tri-color image  was made at daybreak with Jupiter still quite low in the sky. Jupiter's largest moon Ganymede can be seen at upper left.    

SATURN Saturn doesn't have the cloud belt detail of Jupiter, but then there's the rings! It might be considered the jewel of the solar system. Although not usually obtainable on film without overexposing the planet, the major moons lay all around the planet when seen through a telescope.


A 1999 film image of Saturn; taken 9-4-99 at 11:00 UT. The Cassini division is visible on the outer third of the rings.

This is a tri-color CCD image made in 2000. The Casinni division is very clear and the darker color of the outer A ring is easily seen. The brownish inner C ring is also seen. If you know where to look, the Encke minima in the A ring can be seen. Note also the more open rings in this image than the one made in 1999. They begin a return to a more edge-on view after 2000. This is made with the 12.5" Newt.


URANUS Uranus will not give up any detail other than one being able to see a disk through our amateur telescopes, so photographing it was as much a novelty as anything else. Its pale aqua-blue color is obvious, just like the voyager probe images.

That's a 30 second exposure on Kodak PPF 400 film at f94. A less than perfect telescope drive and 30 seconds of churning, boiling atmosphere make it pretty much a fuzzball!


COMETS Comets are frequent visitors to our neck of the woods; most are not seen without some magnification. Most have orbits that go deep past the outer planets of the solar system. Many comets are known with predictable orbits and return dates; however, many new ones are found quite often. Sometimes one will be found while still quite far from Earth. This usually indicates the comet is very bright. Such was the case with comet Hale-Bopp. Hale-Bopp; shown below, was much talked about as the comet of the century. I don't know about that, but I do know it was much brighter than the famous Haley's comet when it visited us in 1986.

A 5 minute exposure at f/3.9 through a 80-200mm zoom lens at 135mm. Unguided piggyback photo on an LX 200. I'll be ready with a much better camera lens when the next good one comes by!

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