For centuries the planet Mars has captivated people’s imaginations. Ancient and modern societies have wondered at its fiery and mysterious beauty. Many ancient cultures included Mars into their astrological charts believing that it’s position and movement as well as the movement of other planets could affect the lives of people on earth and predict earthly events. Some worshipped Mars as a mighty war god.
A more scientific view emerged during the Enlightenment in Europe which slowly over centuries allowed the real Mars come into view. But that discovery took a long and winding path before the real Mars was discovered. We are still discovering things about the red planet even today and the real Mars has proven to be just as mysterious as the myths about the planet in ancient times. Remarkably Mars was given a warrior-like militaristic carriage throughout antiquity, from culture to culture because of it’s red rust color. Either called the god of war or battle and fire, this image of fire and fierceness is not without its merit as people would ultimately find out in the 20th century. As telescopes became more advanced it was easier to study the planet and astronomers could see markings and features that increased their understanding that this was a planet somewhat like earth with geological features such as mountains, valleys, plains and craters. As scientific knowledge and technology evolved more feautures became visible to astronomers. Galileo utilized the telescope to study the heavens in 1610. in 1659 Dutch observer Christiaan Huygens was the first to recognize markings on Mars. He made his own drawings to show one of the feautures now known as Sirtis Major. By tracking this feature on the planet he correctly deduced that Mars turns once in about 24 hours. Later he and observer Giovanni Cassini detected polar ice caps. In 1672 he made more drawings this time marking these polar ice caps.
What these early scientists revealed was only the tip of the iceberg – that the other celestial objects near the earth were not godlike beings but other planets. Sometimes the truth can be just as strange or exciting as myth. Just as the fact that celestial bodies have an effect on agricultural activities shaped ancient people’s thinking about the control these bodies might have wielded in other aspects of life, these new facts began to shape the idea that Mars may be like Earth and that perhaps there were other worlds just like Mars. In the 1700’s William Herschel improved the telescope and reaffirmed the that polar ice caps were arctic fields that expanded in the Martian winter and shrank in summer. He could make out cloud features, that it had a 24-hour day and that it had an axis tilt similiar to Earth’s tilt which gave it its seasonal patterns. Herschal’s findings strengthened the idea that Mars might be like Earth and that perhaps some of the dark markings on the planet might be oceans. By the 19th century it wasn’t supernatural imaginings about the planet but whether it was an earthlike twin and could hold life that fired the imaginations of people.
by the 1800’s extensive maps had been created to show features that scientists could see with the new advanced telescopes of the time but many of these maps conflicted with each other. Giovanni Schiapperelli created a more reliable map. In fact he invented the romantic system of names that we still use today when talking about geological features on Mars. The system of names he used were taken from Biblical, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sources of classical antiquity. Beautiful Latin names such as Mare Sirenum (sea of sirens), fantasy and Biblical places like Atlantis, Utopia and Eden served to further associate Mars with Earth in the minds of many. Around this time some were noticing dark markings that looked like streaks or canals (channels) as found in the sketches of observers like W.R. Dawes and E.L.Trouvelot in the late 1800’s. During this time most assumed they were natural features. But later on canals took on it’s more artificial definition in relation to Mars. During the Martian summer, certain areas on the surface appeared to become a strikingly dark, bluish-green gray color while fading in the winter. These shifts in the appearance of natural features created much speculation that the planet it was habitable. These markings lead scientists to believe that Mars had wide tracts of vegetation on the surface.
Percival Lowell near the very end of the 19th century built a new observatory in Arizona to study Mars. Making a leap from Darwin’s theories that natural selection, mutation and competition could help life evolve from simpler forms to complex forms Lowell speculated that creatures could also evolve to fit the condition on Mars. It seemed at the time that Mars was full of vegetation, changing seasons and seas. Lowell also theorized that the canals were artificial. Straight lines don’t appear in nature so it was assumed that these canals, which seemed to him to be straight and engineered were built by intelligent beings. Why? It was reasoned that on a cold dry planet like Mars people would live near the warmest regions but need the water from the ice polar caps to farm the Martian vegetation so these complex canals were engineered by Martians to water the green regions. How this fueled wild speculation! Lowell called these dark spots oasis and ascribed to them the points of the canals where they intersected supposedly creating locations of abundant water. The issues surround France, America and the Panama Canal had much to do with the influence of thought on Mars at that time. It also served as fuel for science fiction.
By the 1960’s a more realistic picture emerged; that Mars was far more hostile than people first thought. Through more advanced instruments and observations it was revealed that Mars was full of vast deserts not vegetation and that its atmosphere was made of poisonous carbon dioxide with less than 10 percent of earth’s atmosphere. The canals were nowhere to be found and scientists had to readjust their thinking. Mars is lifeless and harsh. Beautiful but harsh. Later observations and probe landings over the decades have shown that even though Mars is a vast desert planet with polar icecaps devoid of complex life there were astonishing geological features that suggest recent planetary activity and a youthful planet like our own. Such things like Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system so far as we know, and a new system of names has been added to explain the dynamic geological features on the planet. These days we don’t have the mystical notions of Mars being a god or a mystical force controlling our fates or the romantic ideas of Mars teeming with Martian life and intelligent beings but we do know that there is a weather system like windstorms that last for months, recent geologic activity, what the atmosphere and surface are composed of, it’s features such as volcanoes and a valley far deeper than even the valleys on Earth and how the planet became what it is today through a succession of geological activity over ages of time. Mars still fires the imagination even as the myths of Martian life and gods have been swept away. We now dream of terra-forming it in the future – of making it like Earth; making it habitable for humans. So the next questions will be: can we really terra-form Mars and make it the Earthlike eden we long for? How much will we have to adapt and change to its environment? Will this idea terra-forming idea be another myth? Or will it be the next destiny of mankind? Only time will tell.