The "season" has Rowan prof seeing red (planet)

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‘Tis the season for Rowan University physics and astronomy associate professor David Klassen.

‘Tis the season for Rowan University physics and astronomy associate professor David Klassen.

"Mars season" that is. December 24 marks the Mars opposition—the point at which Earth and Mars pass each other in their orbits.

Visions of the planet will be dancing in Klassen's telescope in the coming days because Mars appears three to five times bigger in the sky during the opposition—quite a seasonal treat for observers of the planet.

As director of the International Mars Watch, Klassen maintains the organization's Web site, featuring news and events about the red planet. "It's a place where amateur and professional astronomers can meet," Klassen said of the site, which also includes photos submitted by other Mars enthusiasts.

"Our goal is to have a complete image of Mars for every day of the season," he said. For that, the Mars Watch leans heavily on its amateur astronomers.

With new satellites in space and more research conducted on distant planets and galaxies, focus has shifted from Mars in recent years. "It's getting very hard to justify ground-based observing of Mars," said Klassen, explaining why scientific institutes are less likely to grant professional astronomers observing time to study the planet. This increases the importance of the amateur astronomers and their photos.

In 2007, Klassen enlisted the help of Andrew Elenski, a Rowan computer science student, to redesign the site that housed those photos.

"We discussed it, and I became the annoying customer," laughed Klassen. The result was a revamped site and database that made the collection and storage of Mars photos easier than ever.

Klassen, who first developed his interest in astronomy after watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series as a child, currently performs professional research on the planet, too. He is in the process of using infrared technology to measure and track the amount of water stored in clouds on Mars.

Next fall, he will be working with scientists from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Science Institute to apply his research techniques to recent data from a new spacecraft.

But for the time being, he and his fellow members of the International Mars Watch will be enjoying the opposition, which due to the nature of the planets' orbits, won't occur again for another 25 months.

The experience may not be once in a lifetime, but it certainly is a holiday gift that's out of this world.

(To learn more about Mars Watch, visit elvis.rowan.edu/marswatch.)

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