May 18, 2016: The Weather Forecast and Mars!

I’ve had a gripe for a long time now, and it’s the lousy stinking weather forecast.  No, not the weather itself – that’s a separate gripe.  As readers of this blog know, the weather here in New York in particular and the East Coast generally – hmmm, how can I put this delicately? – sucks.  Sucks great big donkey balls, actually.  We are literally clouded out for weeks at a time, and I wish that were an exaggeration.

This is the second year I’ve been at this here in Manhattan and from November through March, the clouds rule.  Clear nights are few and far in between.  Even now, in spring, it’s not that much better, maybe one clear night a week, if you’re lucky.  And even when it is clear, you still have the waxing gibbous or full moon to contend with, adding additional light pollution to my already overwhelmed sky.

But nooooooo, I’m talking about the weather forecast.  Although there are a number of different websites, they all draw their basic information – weather information collected by weather stations – from the same source, the National Weather Service.  And they all suffer from the same handicap – a complete inability to accurately forecast the weather 72 hours in advance.

The Mercury Transit provides the perfect example, but it is one of many.  The transit was on Monday, May 9, from 7am to almost 3 in the afternoon.  On Friday I checked the forecast.  After a cloudy weekend, Monday promised to have clear skies, all day!  On Saturday, I rechecked the forecast.  Uh-oh.  It looks like the clear skies moved up, beginning late Sunday instead, through Monday morning, and Monday afternoon was going to be clouded in.  Okay, not so bad.  Lo and behold, when we got to Sunday, it was clear all day.  I re-recheck the forecast.  Clear?  Cloudy?  Who’s to say?  It’s as if they’re just making it up.

As I discussed in my previous post, the day of the transit itself was a mish-mosh.  We were dodging clouds both at the beginning and the end of the transit, as well as starting after Noon, too.  Thanks, Weather Channel!

The same thing happened a couple of nights ago, when I finally saw some detail on Mars, which I describe below.  Poking my head out the window at 5pm, it looked a little cloudy, but still pretty nice out.when it was still light out, well before sunset.  The hourly forecast said it would be completely clear starting around 8pm, just as twilight was settling in.  Checking again around 7pm, and things were clouding up, the forecast pushed the time when it would be clear to 9pm.  No problem; I’ll set the scope up around 8:30, while there was still some twilight out, to give it a full half-hour to cool down.

8:30 comes and the clouds are still pretty thick.  As they were at 9.  As they were at 10, when the forecast now said that the clouds wouldn’t clear until about Midnight.  Lo and behold, at 10:30, it was completely clear.  Frankly, this is pretty pitiful forecasting.  And these two aren’t the only examples.  There is simply no ability to forecast accurately for astronomical purposes.  It is one thing if you in the middle of a high pressure zone, such that it is already clear.  They can forecast that it will remain clear for a couple of days and be correct about that.  What they cannot do is to answer the question, “Around what time will these clouds clear out completely?”  They just are not able to provide an accurate answer to that question.  The best way to know for sure remains the tried-and-true method of simply sticking my head out a window.

There is something called a self-improving algorithm.  An algorithm is sort of like a formula, a set of rules to be followed to take data and make sense out of it.  For example, the famous IBM computer, Watson, who defeated a couple of Jeopardy champions, has numerous algorithms for finding the correct answers to questions:  methods of taking vast amounts of data, sorting through that data quickly, and figuring out what the correct response most likely is.  Watson’s algorithms are not self-improving, however; they are specifically designed by humans, the engineers at IBM.

Self-improving algorithms have been applied to the stock market in an attempt to make accurate predictions about market trends.  They start off with a large number of various algorithms that make predictions about where the market is heading.  Each algorithm takes into account various particular pieces of information, whether it is corporate earnings announcements, pundit predictions about earnings, the news in general, very specific slices of the news, etc.  These algorithms then predict a large variety of outcomes based on analysis of enormous amounts of data.  These predictions are then compared to the actual outcomes for accuracy.

In a form of algorithmic evolution, the algorithms that lead to incorrect predictions are pruned away and eliminated, leaving only those that have made more or less correct predictions.  These algorithms then mutate slightly, and the process is repeated, with more pruning until an algorithm that takes into account only that information that is considered to be the relevant toward making accurate stock market predictions. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory.  In practice, the “correct” outcomes have merely been less wrong than other outcomes.

This process has also been applied to weather forecasts, but obviously, without nearly as much success.  Weather forecasting has improved greatly with both the huge increase in available weather data from weather stations and the ability for computers to crunch through that data.  Hurricane forecasting in particular has gotten much more accurate than it was only 20 years ago.  But it remains in its infancy when predicting things on the scale of a single city and a matter of hours.  Much to my chagrin; I wish they’d hurry up and perfect this thing already.



As I described last month, here, Mars is now practically at opposition, so it is the largest it’s going to get for the next 26 months.  After nothing but clouds for weeks, the sky finally opened up, as I described above, and so it was time to give Mars another shot to see what could be seen.  The scope had been out cooling down since 8:30 – yes, even though it’s mid-May, it’s still in the mid-40s at night here.  Before Mars rose I got some nice views of the waxing gibbous moon and Jupiter through some sucker holes, and even through some of the lighter clouds.  The seeing was just a little below average; when I Barlowed my 12.5mm ortho for 246x, the sharpness suffered.  Also, the bathroom and kitchen vents located on the roof were running at full tilt for whatever reason, as I previously described here, so I think the roof was vibrating again, ruining my high-powered views.  Instead, I had to settle for the 8mm TeleVue Plossl at 191x.

I could see some nice detail on the moon, as the sun was just rising over the rim of Copernicus, and Plato was in fine form.  I spent a couple of minutes trying to make out one of the little craterlets on Plato’s floor – as I usually do – without success.  There was an Io shadow transit on Jupiter which was visible, but difficult to see in the prevailing seeing conditions.  On the other hand, the belts were giving up some detail, including an unusual widening of the non-GRS belt that gave an impression of looking like the GRS itself.

When I went out again for Mars at 10:30, unfortunately, it was ridiculously windy – sustained gusts of up to 20 mph – causing Mars to bounce all over the place like a pinball. I was observing with the Baader Moon & SkyGlow filter in place, when I saw this:

Mars 5 15 John Holderman
Raccoon eyes.  (photo credit – John Holderman)

Okay, not quite that, but I was seeing two connected dark spots on the left side – what I would describe as “raccoon eyes”, looking left.  But was I really seeing them, or was my imagination getting the better of me?  Because I was also seeing what looked like chromatic aberration at the top of the globe – a sort of red, white, and bluish haze, kind of like what I might see through my ST-80 looking at the moon.  But my Mak doesn’t have chromatic aberration, so that’s impossible.  Hmmm.

As I took my own advice that I repeatedly give to newbies at Telescope Addicts, I didn’t just look at Mars for a few seconds; I observed it for a few minutes.  As it continued to bounce around with the wind, I became more and more sure that I was actually seeing albedo features on the surface.  I also looked at it without the M&SG filter, but I couldn’t see the features without it.  Coming in and checking Sky & Telescope’s Mars Profiler, I was sure I had seen something.  Those raccoon eyes were Syrtis Major and Minor.  Seeing John Holderman’s photo in my Facebook feed, taken a night earlier but at roughly the same time of night as I was observing, confirmed it.

Syrtis Major is a darker volcanic area on the surface of Mars because of its relative lack of lighter-colored dust.  It was first seen by Christiaan Huygens in 1659.  This is the same Huygens who first figured out the true nature of Saturn’s ring (Galileo had seen it first, over 40 years earlier, but he thought Saturn was a tri-lobed planet), and who discovered Saturn’s moon Titan.  Of course, the Huygens probe that was launched by the Cassini probe and landed on Titan in 2005 was named after him as well.  Syrtis Major was the first feature on the surface of another planet ever seen by anyone.  Huygens observed it over a number of days as it moved across the face of Mars and was able to estimate the length of a Martian day at 24 1/2 hours, which is basically correct.  The actual value is 24 hours, 37 minutes.

Mars will continue to be big and close for a few more more weeks yet, so hopefully I’ll be able to get at least a couple more chances to see some detail during this opposition.  Better yet, I’ll see it a little earlier in the evening and a little higher in the sky, too, as Mars was only between 17 and 19 degrees elevation when I was observing it, still way down in the murk of the thickest part of the atmosphere, robbing it of detail.  Unfortunately, during this opposition, Mars only reaches a maximum of 28 degrees.  At its closest approach on May 30, that culmination will occur at the relatively reasonable hour of five minutes after midnight.  So there’s still hope in the next few weeks.  Here’s to clear skies!


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