No planet has more captured or stimulated human fear, public fascination, and, scientific interest than the planet Mars.
America was glued to their radio sets on the night of October 30th, 1938. They were not prepared for Mercury Theatre on the Air’s program narrated by Orson Welles. The program that night, specifically set for Halloween, was an adaptation of the H. G. Well’s novel published in 1897 of the same name The War of the Worlds. With what seemed a regular broadcast was interrupted by news bulletins of explosions on Mars, then, Martian war machines were said to be releasing poisonous clouds of smoke over New York. This alien invasion of Martians on Earth caused widespread panic. How could this happen, what led to this?
Mars has gotten a bad reputation throughout history. Mars is the god of War from the Roman days, with its red color for blood. – Fast-forward – then, with a telescope, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, saw lines on Mars during its closest approach that year. The Milan observatory was just 100 miles from Venice so his use of ‘canali’, ‘canals’ in Italian, sort of stuck. Eventually more lines were seen, connecting across the Mars globe, carefully drawn, and other individuals further suggested the canals were not just for water but for communication, too, and, eventually, Mars had a thriving advanced civilization. Chesley Bonestell, the grandfather of space art, created his famous artwork of Mars and painted it as a space-faring planet. H.G. Wells capitalized on this notion. A good concept well played.
While this radio show did show a universal lack of knowledge of Mars, we have now sent spacecraft into orbit of Mars, landed many on the surface, and even have rovers crawling around Mars that have lasted much longer than expected collecting data, sending back images, analyzing rocks and most importantly searching for possible places life could still be present on a planet very different than Earth. What we Earthlings have data to support, is that water was at one point in Mars’ history plentiful, not so much today. The orbiters have shown global dust storms, dunes on the move, and many other aspects which seem very promising for finding true, indigenous Martian life – real Martians.
Mars is reaching yet another closest approach to Earth soon in July and August. The visible detail has been absolutely stunning, and now we have better maps of the surface detail to know what a feature has been called in historically terms, and more… You will find Mars in a southeast sky near you at dusk, or, in a big telescope at The Observatory in Overgaard these next few months.
Steven Aggas is the Director at Apache-Sitgreaves Observatory, located in Overgaard, AZ, using the largest public viewing telescope in Arizona. Visit Apache-Sitgreaves.org for information on events and tickets.