Man’s fascination with Mars

Man has been fascinated by Mars since he first recognised the stars. Ancient man saw that there were patterns of stars that changed with the seasons and planned his year – judging when to sow seeds and reap harvests – by their appearance.

Huygens' sketch made in 1659

He saw that among the fixed patterns of stars there were a few “wandering stars” – what we know today as the brighter planets.

Mars was of special interest because it becomes so bright. And its strong red hue – the colour of blood – no doubt led to them identifying it with the god of war.

Following the invention of the telescope, Galileo looked at Mars in 1610 and saw that it was not always round – it shows phases like the gibbous Moon near full. In 1636 Fontana glimpsed dark markings on Mars and on 28 November, 1659, Huygens made the earliest known sketch, recording one of its most prominent features, Syrtis Major.

Schiaperelli's sketch of 'canals'

Cassini measured the rotation period of Mars in 1666 and found it to be around 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth. Maraldi saw white patches on the top and bottom of the disk in 1719 – these were identified by Sir William Herschel in the 18th Century as polar caps like our own.

In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced that he had seen channels on Mars – the word became mistranslated in English as canals. Today we know that they are an illusion but leading American astronomer Sir Percival Lowell “confirmed” their existence and claimed they were vegetation growing alongside waterways.

Other astronomers decided there was a network of canals built by Martians. But there is no trace of the canal patterns in detailed photos taken by orbiting spaceprobes or the Hubble space telescope.

Early find
English author Jonathan Swift eerily described the existence of two moons around Mars in his 1726 masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels – more than 150 years before Phobos and Deimos were discovered in 1877.

War classic
The idea of intelligent life on Mars inspired H G Wells to write his classic novel The War Of The Worlds.

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