On this day, fifty-two years ago, NASA launched Mariner 4, a spacecraft that trekked its way to our nearest planetary neighbor and sent home the very first images of another planet taken from space. Now, Red Planet Day is observed on November 28th to mark the anniversary of one of NASA’s greatest early successes and to celebrate our rust-hued neighbor.
Named for the Roman god of war, Mars has long been a source of fascination and, sometimes fear. Mars is one of the five bright planets in our solar system and can be seen with the naked eye. With the aid of a telescope, though, some of the features on the planet’s surface can be distinguished and, in the late 19th century, Giovanni Schiaparelli of the Brera Observatory in Milan began the process of naming and mapping those features, including a number of channels. A mistranslation of the word “canali” led to an assumption of their being intelligent life on Mars: rather than channels, “canali” was read as canals and, here on Earth at the same time, canals were an increasingly important part of our commerce infrastructure.
Schiaparelli’s drawings influenced Percival Lowell—who built the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—who was convinced that the canals were built to carry water from the polar regions of Mars toward the equator. Lowell mapped hundreds of canals and published his findings and hypotheses, along with his illustrations, in three books. His first book, published in 1895, in turn, influenced H.G. Wells who brought us The War of the Worlds in 1898. Wells’ novel gave birth to alien science fiction and ended up being a gift that just keeps on giving.
Far from being populated with sinister, conquest-seeking Martians, Mars, as far as we can tell, might host microbial life and even that is an unproven hypothesis. If Mars is home to microscopic life, that home sweet home is likely underground where it is warm enough for liquid water rather than the ice that exists on the planet’s surface. Despite the obvious differences between our little rock orbiting the sun and the little red rock orbiting the sun—liquid water on the surface, average temperature, surface radiation, etc.—Mars is still the best candidate to be another habitable planet in our solar system.
Indeed, NASA is working to put astronauts on Mars’ surface sometime in the 2030s and, in addition to the two rovers and three orbiters NASA is currently using to study our neighbor, several more landing and orbiting missions are already on the books to take place over the next few years, including InSight—set to launch in 2018—and Mars 2020, which is planned to launch in—you guessed it—2020. For now, though, I am all about the Curiosity rover, which has been sending back some fascinating information.
As we grow closer and closer to making our way to Mars and as we collect all kinds of new information about the little rock next door, looking up at the sky and seeing our neighbor glowing along its orbital way still fills me with a sense of wonder. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, right now, Mars is out for a lot of the same time as the sun and, as a result, is obscured from view for most of its transit across our sky. But—and this may be the only good thing about the sun setting so very early—if you look to the south-southwest around dusk, you can see Mars approaching our horizon.
So, if you’ve got a clear sky this evening, I hope you’ll take some time to spot our neighbor, raise a toast, and maybe even send up a wish that we’ll be visiting soon!
Image Source: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/mars/