As I dialled in and focussed the view finder, Mars began to form with increasing clarity in my eye. It’s red and barren landscape giving up stories which detail millions upon millions of years of history. And as I was able to track the red planet’s orbit, arcing our night sky and gently nudging into opposition, my mind wandered and memories surfaced of the first time I was greeted by a red dot in the night sky.
I must have been around eight years of age and returning home from a cub scout meeting when my father stopped in his tracks and glanced up at the clear frost-ridden sky. Telling me to turn around he pointed up to what was an obvious and distinct red pin-prick in the otherwise dark emptiness of the winter sky. Pointing out Mars, I was already aware that the planet was seen as red and likely harboured alien life if the scary films I had seen by that age were to be believed.
Thirty years later and Mars is slowly coming into opposition again, manoeuvring itself into that perfect place for us to view, the planet being in ideal sunlight while we daze in the night. Although not quite perfectly positioned, the red planet is slowly making its way, the optimum viewing time around mid-October.
But it was the other night (or rather, very early morning) that I was training my telescope on the trajectory of Mars when in the top-left a blurry flash swiped over the corner. Only lasting for the briefest of moments – no more than a tenth or so – my immediate reaction was a gasp and a simultaneous step back from the telescope.
You see, other than the planets and stars gracefully moving across the sky, there should be no other discernible movement. Certainly not as instantly recognisable as movement. Definitely no flashes, whizzes or darts. And things that are earth-sourced – a bird or aeroplane for example – are not visible when I’m focused on such a tiny area of the sky. The chances of a bird crossing the same path as my view are so remote it is hardly worth figuring out the math of it. And even then, it would pass so quickly I probably wouldn’t even notice.
If you will, think of the night sky as a giant screen made up of pixels. Billions upon billions of pixels. And Mars, as viewed with the naked eye from the surface of Earth, is just one of those pixels. Sure, the bird that is flying across the sky only a hundred or so metres away is many more pixels in size, but the vastness of what is viewable – the size of our ‘night sky monitor’ – makes the chances of coming a cropper with the avian kind very remote.
So anyway, returning to my heart-stopping, breath-gasping and eye-bulging moment…
I stepped back in surprise. Was I imagining it? Was there something on my eye-piece or even perhaps on my eye itself? Without thinking I looked out in the direction my telescope was pointed. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see but look I did. All I saw was the night sky and the tiny red pixel.
I ventured back towards my telescope and gingerly allowed my eye to focus on the lens. It was just Mars, now moving out of view on its relentless orbit. With a hand on each of the slow-motion directional gears, I slowly adjusted the trajectory of the mirrors towards the top-left. And once Mars was but a mere slither in the opposing corner, I tweaked the focus and allowed the view to zoom out.
I can look back now – it’s been a couple of weeks since this happened – and laugh at myself. But at the time, I was genuinely a little shocked. When you are in complete silence and are totally concentrated on one thing alone, and knowing that nothing viewable will ever disturb this concentration, you can imagine the shock of the unexpected. An Earth-bound alien space craft, a menacing gaseous cloud moving around the solar system…
…or the International Space Station.
Being so much closer to Earth than Mars, ISS moves very fast in comparison and will always be out of focus due to proximity of my mirror. Needless to say, I spent the next hour or so trying to keep up with ISS while I marvelled at the beautiful nature of something we humans have made. I had never seen ISS through my telescope until that day. And furthermore, I have never seen an alien space craft either.