Mars History Highlights

Mars History Highlights

March 2012  :  Dave Huestis

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.... No one gave a thought to the other worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most, terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”

So begins The War of the Worlds, the 1898 classic by H.G. Wells. This book was the first science fiction novel I ever read. I remember reading it nonstop from cover to cover because I was so fascinated with the possibility of life on other worlds. Too bad most literary and movie extraterrestrial life-forms almost always seem determined to exterminate us!

Did Mr. Wells dream up the idea of intelligent beings residing on Mars? I’m afraid the credit is not due him. Wells relied upon astronomical studies of his day for the premise. It all began in 1877 when Italian astronomer Schiaparelli reported observing “canali” on Mars. Canali means channels. However, when the word was translated into English they were simply called canals. Canals implied intelligent construction, and thus began the speculation on the Martian builders.

At the turn of the 20th century, United States astronomer Percival Lowell began a study of Mars. With the guidance of the Harvard College Observatory, an observatory was erected on a hill in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the seeing was quite good. It is still a working observatory today, named Lowell Observatory in his honor.

Lowell also observed these peculiar markings that supposedly criss-crossed the planet. He conjectured that the Martians had an impressive irrigation system to carry water from the frozen polar caps to the arid desert regions near the planet’s equator. Lowell wrote, “Irrigation, and upon as vast a scale as possible, must be the all-engrossing Martian pursuit.’ But alas, there are no canals on Mars, or any Martians either, as far as we know. So what really did Schiaparelli and Lowell see?

No one knows! Some astronomers have speculated that under ideal observing conditions these two astronomers may have detected craters on the Martian surface. It could have also been subtle difference between bright and dark areas. Their brains may have played connect-the-dots with these features to produce the “canals.” Only with today’s modern telescopes and electronic equipment are craters and volcanoes visible. So it appears the old observations may always remain a mystery.

(I visited Lowell Observatory in 1981 and had the opportunity to observe Saturn through the magnificent 24-inch refractor. It was an awe-inspiring image I will never forget. My only regret is that Mars was not the object of our attention that evening. I can only imagine what views this great refractor provided to Lowell in the clear and stable air of Flagstaff. Would I have succumbed to the Lowellian Syndrome as well?)

Since Lowell’s time, many spacecraft have orbited the red planet. Currently there are three spacecraft orbiting Mars and taking detailed images: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express, and Odyssey. And of course we can’t forget the ground exploration of rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit has ceased functioning, but Opportunity is continuing its mission, eight years after it landed.

Soon this little rover will be joined by a much bigger brother. In August of this year, Curiosity, a small car-sized rover, will land on the Martian surface to begin a new era in planetary exploration. And like the previous rover missions, we’ll be able to share in the excitement as images are transmitted back to the Earth and posted to the web for all to see.

Unfortunately none has yet to confirm Lowell’s observations. Mars is a bleak, desert-like planet that is also very heavily cratered. There are huge volcanoes, global dust storms, and great sand dune fields. In addition, what look like dry river beds abound on the planet. Could Schiaparelli and Lowell have seen these? Not from Earth they couldn’t! Even the craters don’t match up to any of the drawings Lowell made of round regions he called oases, where “canals” appeared to merge.

Besides, Mars has been dry for a long, long time. It seems the planet once had an abundant supply of flowing water on its surface. Somehow much of it was lost to space, whereas the remainder may still be trapped beneath the surface as permafrost. The polar caps also contain much water ice, though it is mixed with a lot of carbon dioxide. There is no liquid water on the Martian surface due to the low atmospheric pressure. However, more recent observations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have detected possible salty water (brine) flows emerging from steeply sloping walls during the warmest periods of the Martian 687 day year.

Prior to 1976 faint hope still persisted that Mars supported some form of life. I’m sure that belief drove the research teams who oversaw the two Viking landers that successfully touched down on the Martian surface in July 1976. Among other experiments, the Viking landers tested the soil surrounding the space craft for microscopic life. The results proved negative, though some biologists and chemists say “inconclusive.” A television camera on board scanned the immediate area. No Martian, large or small, sauntered past the lander. I think many researchers would have indeed been shocked if the camera had revealed a curious creature peering into the lens. Our outlook on life in the universe, as well as our place in it, would have dramatically changed.

What continues to draw us to Mars? Is it because we still believe life may once have flourished upon or beneath its now lifeless terrain? Spacecraft images and sensors may provide a wealth of data, but nothing can compare to the experience of seeing firsthand even a fleeting image of some Martian surface features through the telescopes at the local observatories or even through one’s personal backyard telescope.

Top image:

Opportunity's Eighth Anniversary View From 'Greeley Haven' NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.