For time immemorial, when men or women gazed up into the heavens, they wondered if we are alone, if anyone or anything lived anywhere else.
Near the end of the 19th century, a time of great scientific curiosity, astronomers aimed their telescopes toward the red planet Mars and saw what they thought were canals and speculation about life on Mars started in earnest.
In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli drew the first Martian map. It showed “canali” which means channels in Italian, running through it. Surely, it took intelligent hands to divert water with canals, people argued.
In 1910, Percival Lowell explained all of this by writing a rather fanciful book he called “Mars as the Abode of Life.” According to Lowell, the inhabitants of Mars tried to save their dying drought plagued planet by building irrigation canals to bring water from the Polar Regions to the equator where most of the inhabitants lived.
This position did nothing to quell the excitement, and stunned wonderings running riot with visions of Martian life. People started seeing, or talking about, little green men from Mars.
All this anticipation came a little too close to home following an Orson Wells’s radio drama, “Invasion from Mars,” that terrified thousands of radio listeners on October 30, 1938. Hundreds of people flooded the roads to escape from grey, snakelike reptiles invading Grover’s Mills, New Jersey.
Contemplating Mars with its canals, proximity to earth, polar ice caps, and its similar length of days all gave people hope, or dread, that civilized life exists, or once existed, on Mars. Religion told people that only Earth contained life, all other bodies in the universe were uninhabited.
Twentieth century space probes did little to end the controversy. In the mid-1970s, the US launched the Viking to probe for microorganisms in the soil. The existence of methane and ammonia on Mars suggested the presence of living things.
In 1965, the Mariner Probe showed that Mars had no bodies of water and no signs of life. Craters pockmarked the surface. It showed a lack of a magnetic field and the atmospheric pressure showed that water could flow. Scientists rule out active life on Mars but want to look for evidence of extinct life.
They believe life may have sprung up on Mars during its wet period and died out as the planet dried out. Fossils and stromatolites, which they searched for, manifest extinct life on Earth but tests were unsophisticated and may not have been able to discern these life forms. Furthermore, the tests may have killed any primitive life present.
In 2004, NASA created great excitement by announcing that the rover Opportunity discovered that Mars used to be a wet planet, thus creating hope that some evidence of past life existed on the planet
Nothing has captured the public’s imagination more than the intriguing figure photographed by the Rover. It looks like a person, but what it is stays open to questions. Some suggest that it shows a woman waiting for a bus, one that may not come. Other people see a striking resemblance to the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen, Denmark. This leads to speculation that earth started with immigrants from the dying Mars.
Some believe the figure was carved by an ancient artist, while others say the wind worked its magic. According to astronomer Jim Bell, head of the scientific team in charge of the cameras, “It’s a funky little bizarre wind-carved rock formation not unusual at all.”
Studies of 12 meteorites from Mars and found in the Antarctic concluded that they held fossilized microbes. Right away, some scientists explained them away by saying the fossils were only shapes caused by chemical reactions. Both explanations continue to be controversial to the scientific community.
Most scientists seem to believe that all life needs be based on the same parameters as life on earth, carbon based, needing a certain temperature range, and so forth. Life elsewhere may have a different base and different requirements. We may not even recognize some forms as living.
The controversy goes on. Unless a space ship from Mars lands on the White House lawn and beings pour out and say, “Take us to your leader,” we will wonder about the possibility and the probability of life on our nearest neighboring planet .