The idea of life on Mars has captured the imagination since astronomers first thought they had found water-carrying canals crossing the planet.
It was believed that dark markings were vegetation such as lichens – and Man wondered whether intelligent beings might inhabit the planet too.
HG Wells wrote his most famous book The War Of The Worlds about an invasion of Martians and the notion of Little Green Men inspired many films – such as the great spoof B-movie Mars Attacks!
But in 1996 the world was rocked by the announcement from the US space agency Nasa that they believed life probably did once exist on Mars. They claimed there was clear evidence of fossilised organisms in a meteorite from Mars found in Allan Hills, Antarctica.
The Nasa scientists believed the meteorite, known as ALH84001, was a chunk of 4.5 billion-year-old rock which had later cracked, letting in water and providing a home for primitive bacteria.
The news inspired dramatic headlines such as “Life On Mars: Official” across the front page of the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper.
UK tabloid The Sun hinted at the uncertainty by carrying the humorous sub-heading: (Well SOMETHING up there has wind).
It is probably safe to say that few today agree with Nasa’s early claims – the concensus appears to be that the meteorite could have been contaminated once it reached Earth.
Life on Mars made the front pages again in January 2009 when NASA reported the detection of plumes of methane coming from the surface of Mars. This could have a biological or geological origin and the experts are torn. It is clear that more investigations need to be carried out by future spaceprobes.
Some rather imaginative people believe there to be evidence of intelligent life inhabiting the Red Planet. Photos from spacecraft showing a face-like feature on Mars and shapes vaguely like pyramids inspired a rash of pseudo-scientific books claiming they had been built by aliens – but further images from space reveal clearly that they are natural rock formations.
More about Mars
Where you can find Mars and what you can see
Humankind’s fascination with Mars throughout history
Mars and its moons at a glance
Mars represented the god of war for the Vikings, the Greeks and the Romans. In Assyria, it was known as the “Shedder of Blood”.