The sandy planet of Mars, named after the mythological Roman figure associated with war and bloodshed, is estimated to be slightly over 4.5 billion years old. It is also commonly referred to as the Red Planet; red as in the color of blood. For various reasons, this unique celestial body has excited the minds over the centuries, and to this day, it continues to do so.

Artist’s concept of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching the Red Planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Ages and Features of Mars

Scientists have broken its lifespan into three separate time periods. During the first age, which covered the first 700 to 900 million years of the planet’s existence, it was home to a chilling climate. Volcanic activity was certainly not a rarity (Mars is home to the largest volcanoes on any planet in our solar system). During this time, water in its liquid phase is believed to have been quite plentiful. In addition, Mars had a thick atmosphere and a magnetic field which would have been capable of shielding the cold surface from dangerous levels of radiation. Such were good conditions for supporting living organisms.

As time progressed, it is believed Mars gradually became colder and drier. Between 3 and 3.6 billion years ago (the second period), the water froze, rendering the surface almost wholly frozen. But even in the midst of these frigid temperatures, volcanic activity still reigned across the planet. However, the magnetic field from the first era of Mars was gone, so a more significant dose of radiation was bathing the surface. This drastic change in climate would have made survival for many forms of life extremely difficult.

The third and final period began 3 billion years ago and is still continuing today. The continued cold and dryness paired with a very thin atmosphere may have been the cause of the most severe effects occurring in this period of Mars’s history. Because of these conditions, water in its liquid state can now last only a short while on the surface; this would likely be the most life-denying quality the planet has to offer. Despite this, many scientists still believe Mars to be a suitable host for supporting life.

Similar to Earth, Mars has a pair of polar ice caps. Its north pole is made up of a sheet of ice water that is 1.8-miles thick. The sheet at the opposite pole is thicker, and made mostly of carbon dioxide ice. The planet is smaller than ours, with a diameter of approximately 4,200 miles, and the air is comprised mainly of carbon dioxide — it makes up 95 % of the atmosphere. This could be a positive sign since carbon or carbon compounds are present in all life-forms on Earth. However, temperatures on Mars can reach -195 degrees Fahrenheit (-125 degrees Celsius). The surface of the planet contains iron oxide, the compound which gives blood and rust their scarlet and orangish color, which is why Mars appears red.

Early Observations and Beliefs

Humans have been observing Mars since the time of the ancient Egyptians. But it was Nicolaus Copernicus in the early to mid 16th century who first suggested that Mars was a planet. Less than two decades later, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens made a drawing of Mars based on some data he had gathered from a telescope he created. In his observations, Huygens discovered a strange formation on the planet which would eventually be named Syrtis Major. Huygens was also the first person known to have proposed that there is life on Mars.

Mars Twin Canals by Schiaparelli.

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, began describing and illustrating the Martian surface. He gave historical and mythical names to the “seas” and “continents” which he observed there. Schiaparelli even thought he had discovered what appeared to be canali, or “channels,” although this term was mistakenly translated into “canals.” Numerous other scientists of the time made their own observations and concluded the same. But in fact, the channels did not exist at all; they were an optical illusion caused by a certain common mechanism of the telescopes of the late 1800’s.

Less than ten years before this alleged discovery, the Suez Canal — which was the engineering marvel of its day — had been finished. With such an advanced achievement on Earth, the astronomical community had a major interest in finding similar canal structure on Mars. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory, proposed that the so-called “canals” determined that, at some point, the planet had sustained life.

He went as far as writing and publishing several books including Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). However, as telescopes became more advanced during Lowell’s lifetime, scientists were able to observe the planet without seeing the fantastic artificial canals. Thus, the idea of their existence and subsequently, the existence of Martian life was dismissed by many members of the scientific community. Even so, storytellers of all kinds loved the concept of life on Mars as well as life in extraterrestrial reaches of the universe.

The Role of Mars in Pop Culture

Ever since science originally proposed the presence of canals that were constructed by intelligent creatures on the surface of Mars in the 19th century, fiction writers and movie makers and the like have continually recycled the idea of Martian life. The public curiosity and interest in Martians have increased the overall popularity of aliens in general. Mars has acted as either the main setting or a key element in countless science fiction tales.

Such classic science fiction includes movies like The Angry Red Planet (1960) and TV series like Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968). Mars has also been the foundation of several acclaimed sci-fi novels including Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first installment of C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy and The Martian (2011), by Andy Weir, which was adapted into the 2015 film of the same title.

But perhaps the most well-known and loved of Martian stories is H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), a novel which unfolds the tale of a Martian race invading and trying to dominate Earth. Orson Welles’ radio rendition of October 30, 1938, was apparently so convincing that when it was aired it allegedly gave way to a national panic. One screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ book was George Pal’s 1953 masterpiece, a movie which changed sci-fi action cinematography forever and is still considered the best War of the Worlds film by many fans. Early on in Pal’s version, the audience is taken to Mars where, as the narrator tells us,

“For centuries it has been in the last stages of exhaustion. At night, temperatures drop far below zero, even at its equator. The inhabitants of this dying planet looked across space with instruments of which we have scarcely dreamed, searching for another world to which they could migrate.”

The scriptwriters were at least correct in saying that Mars is can reach temperatures well beneath the freezing point of water in the evenings.

According to a 2012 article from The Atlantic by Alexis C. Madrigal, an account notes that in 1899 a young boy named Robert imagined a vessel that might be able to reach Mars and that the vision gave him a goal to strive for in his life. This child grew up to become the legendary Robert Goddard, an American physicist known today as the “father of modern rocketry,” because he invented the first liquid fuel propelled rockets. He had been inspired by the fantastical literary works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells including The War of the Worlds.

The Quest to the Stars and on to Mars

NASA’s exploration program has allowed us to get a glimpse of the Red Planet’s surface, but we’ve yet to send any humans to Mars. Image credits: NASA.

Before mankind even landed on the moon, US scientists had sent a probe towards the fourth planet from our sun, Mars, in order to capture aerial imagery of the planet. In 1964, this probe, Mariner 4, made a flyby and successfully produced 21 pictures. In 1969, Mariner 6 and 7 were launched for the purpose of viewing the south pole of Mars. Both probe missions went well. When Mariner 7 succeeded on its flyby on August 5th, it relayed 126 photos back to Earth. Less than 20 days prior to this momentous occasion, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin had made history by landing on the surface of another heavenly body and had made history.

Over the past half a century, 20+ spacecraft from various nations have taken off in order to investigate the Red Planet, furthering our knowledge and understanding of its appearance, its chemical makeup, and even its past. For example, probes have found and photographed dark designs in the sand that were formed from the motion of dust devils. Such patterns are made when the red Martian topsoil is blown away and the darker, heavier soil below is left in its place.

But now man’s dreams and his energy are focused on sending actual people to this planet; artificial intelligence and programmed satellites can only accomplish so much, and humanity is fascinated with the idea of settling on a distant alien world.

There are many reasons to send a manned mission to Mars. One reason is that it is the closest planet to Earth that astronauts can explore. The shortest possible distance it would take to reach Mars is approximately 54.6 million kilometers, but the longest distance would be about 401 million kilometers — it depends on the stage of its revolution. Furthering our scientific knowledge is probably the most significant excuse to traveling there. The Red Planet would provide a superb environment for many experimental tests. It may even be possible to render or distill from the soil an oxidizer, an additional fuel supply, water, or oxygen.

As discussed previously, the atmosphere on Mars is rather thin. In fact, there is a hole in the ozone layer which spanning the entire planet. Still, the Red Planet is the most habitable of the eight planets in our solar system — apart from Earth. By studying the side effects of this hole on Mars, we can learn about some of the consequences we may have to face here on our home planet in the event of an ozone reduction.

“What about searching for life?” is probably one of the most basic and frequent inquiries by the public as well as the scientific community. Of course, scientists are going to look for extraterrestrial life-forms wherever they explore. Even though a living organism has never actually been identified outside of Earth, scientists continue their search throughout the endless cosmos.

The Viking landers which touched down on Mars in the mid-1970s and early 1980s came up with negative results in their search for life on this barren ice-age rock that was once an Earth-like world. However, many scientists are persevering, hoping that oases, certain pockets of terrain that are agreeable to the support of life, might exist on Mars. The men and women of the biological sciences will exhaust every possibility.

New extraterrestrial exploration and discovery, such as a manned mission to Mars, will likely lead to a much higher interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, resulting in a future generation of dedicated scientists, innovators, and educators. On perhaps a more interesting note, some would like to see if Mars could be made into a potential colonization destination. Establishing a permanent human presence on the Red Planet has been seriously considered. Martian resources could produce many elements necessary for our survival, but we will not know for sure until astronauts can make a series of tests on the planet.

NASA has been discussing a manned mission to Mars for decades, but the goal and decision to send such a mission have now been made. On March 21, 2017, President Trump issued a mandate to NASA to achieve a manned Mars mission by the year 2033. The administration established the most elaborate plan yet, consisting of five phases which are to be carried out over the following years. However, as we know from past experience, plans are subject to change, and there shall always be failures and drawbacks. But we will push through them because it is human nature to do so. In many regards, it is certainly a bold and brilliant technologically oriented age in which we live.

Additional sources:

  • Horobin, Wendy, et al., editors. Space: a Visual Encyclopedia. New York, NY, DK, 2010.
  • Sagan, Carl. “Why Mars?” The Planetary Report, 1996, pp. 10–11, Accessed 19 July 2017.

By ZME reader John Tuttle. Are you a scientist, expert, student, or an artist? Do you want to share your work with the world? Learn how anyone who has something interesting to say can contribute to ZME Science. 

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