mars-an example of our increasing knowledge and how mythology, art, literature, science, technology and human nature interact

Moon and 4 Planets
Mars, the red planet was associated by the Greeks and Romans with the god of war. With the naked eye no detail can be made out as it circles in its orbit adjacent to the Earth but further from the sun. The first drawing using a telescope was by Huyghens in 1659. It shows a fixed feature which was called Syrtis Major and which allowed the speed of rotation (the length of the Martian day) to be determined. 24 hours 37 minutes 23 seconds
The two photos below taken from Astronomy for Everyman ed Martin Davidson 1954

Observation of Mars with telescopes from Earth is effectively limited to the times when the two planets are close which occurs about every 18 months. Further details are given in the picture below which shows a summary of the recognised features in 1900.


Careful observation showed seasonal changes, most notably the appearance of ice caps at the two poles during the martian winter. Mars has an atmosphere though it is very thin and at intervals the surface features were obscured by what were interpreted as dust storms. Viewing was made difficult by the refraction of the Earth’s atmosphere causing shimmering of the image. Until recently photography was unhelpful because of the long exposures required. Naked eye viewing allowed the intervals when viewing was best to see detail which was subsequently drawn on paper and inevitably there was disagreement. See two pictures below taken from Astronomy for Everyman ed Martin Davidson 1954



The subjective nature of these observations led to differences of interpretation and disagreements. The most significant following the description of the surface by Schiarparelli in 1877. Having a new telescope and exceptional viewing conditions he was astounded by the detail he saw. He decided to construct a new map of the surface naming many new features and writing in Italian; Included were the now famous straight line features he called ‘canali’ intending it to be translated correctly as ‘channels’ in English. Unfortunately this was erroneously translated as ‘canals’ implying they had been constructed artificially. This initiated an enormous controversy.

Most notably the concept of there being canals constructed on Mars was championed by the American astronomer Percival Lowell. This excellent link allows this discussion to be brought up to date and the features described by Schiarparelli and Lowell to be correlated with current knowledge.

In 1898 H G Wells wrote one of the first science fiction novels, The War of the Worlds. It is a description of the invasion of the Earth by Martians escaping from their dying planet only to be killed off by an earthly microbial infection to which the martians had no reistance. Prescient! In 1938 Orson Welles presented a radio version which was so realistic it caused panic. Coincidentally it brought him to the notice of the public.

Red Mars canal
A tribute to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles ‘Red Mars Canal’

20030728_marsClose01-fi Modern technology has allowed Earth-based telescopes to produce superb photos. The martian atmosphere and the polar ice cap can clearly be seen.


A map of Mars published in the October 28 2008 edition of Time magazine and identifies the landing places of the various probes sent to Mars up to that date.  On it is marked Syrtis Major first identified 349 years previously. Our understanding of the planet has been transformed by the information obtained from space probes and landings of remotely controlled craft.

This picture taken from the Hubble telescope clearly shows the atmosphere of Mars and some surface features including Syrtis Major.  Even the Hubble telescope up above the Earth’s atmosphere only shows a limited amount of detail.

A composite photograph of the surface of Mars taken from orbiting Viking 1 space probe in 1980.

Currently the Curiousity Rover is actively exploring Mars It will gather an enormous amount of information over the next year or so. Who knows what it will discover.

You can visit Mars virtually.

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