Snapping Mars Flashes

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Science  22 Jun 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5525, pp. 2247
DOI: 10.1126/science.292.5525.2247b

Mysterious flashes of light from Mars have been dismissed as illusions having more in common with Loch Ness monster sightings than hard science. But a team of amateur astronomers has now done something Nessie fans can only dream of: They predicted when one legendary flash would recur and then captured it on videotape during an expedition to the Florida Keys this month.

When bright light flashed from a hook-shaped martian feature called the Edom Promontorium in 1958, some overeager scientists suggested that Martians with mirrors were signaling Earth. But the consensus was that a favorable alignment between Earth and Mars caused sunlight to reflect from water crystals in the martian atmosphere.

Thomas Dobbins, a contributing editor of Sky and Telescope magazine and author of the book Video Astronomy, last year decided to calculate when the 1958 alignment would recur. To his surprise, the computer spat out early June 2001. So he gathered a team of top-notch amateur astro-imagers in Florida to photograph the hoped-for flashes.

Sure enough, at 2:40 a.m. on 7 June, the team observed flares glinting from the edge of the Edom Promontorium for nearly 90 minutes. The flare, and additional ones on 8 June, were captured by a video camera mounted on a 28-cm telescope, the team reports in the 8 June International Astronomical Union Circular 7642.

Scientists still aren't sure about the cause of the flares.

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