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Mars - A Journey of Discovery

The discovery of Mars was not an event that one could pin to a single date in history. Nor is there a single name to which the deed can be ascribed. Indeed, the discovery of the Red Planet is an ongoing process even today, and the explorers are many.

Eons ago, long before our first recorded memory, man stood in the cool evening breeze and wondered at the canopy of lights that filled the skies. Consumed with a mythical fascination for the stars, he began to observe them more closely and to give them names or identities.

One of these heavenly orbs seemed to stand out more than the others because of its unusual coloring. It was red, the color of fire and of blood. Mars was, to these ancients, the symbol of war.

The people of early Mesopotamia studied astronomy as early as 3500 years ago, piqued by their appreciation of mystery and order. The earliest written record we have of Mars, itself, however dates from 3,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia where it was called, Nergal, god of death and pestilence.

The Babylonians were not the only people who interpreted the Red Planet as the ruler of wars and strife. To the Persian, Mars also ruled over wars. They called their God Pahlavani Sipher. To the Egyptians, he was Harmakis. The ancient Greeks called him Ares, the god of battle, The Norse named him Tui, which is the source of the English term, Tuesday. And the Romans named the planet Mars, their God of War whose name persists today. Astronomers today use the symbol O for Mars, referring to a sword and shield, two easily recognizable implements of war.

The Greeks noted that some of the sky lights or stars were fixed in their positions, while some of them seemed to wander about the skies. The Greek word planetes means wanderer. It was a Greek astronomer named Hipparchus, from the second century BC, who noticed that unlike the rest of these planets or wanderers, the movements of the Red Planet were erratic, not always moving from the west to the easy, when measured against fixed stars. It sometimes seemed to double back on itself and switch direction. Hipparchus had found another distinction to help us to know or to discover Mars.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born Mikolaj Koppernigk in 1473 in Poland. As he matured, his quest for knowledge covered many subjects. He studied astronomy, medicine, math, philosophy, liberal arts, and even Canon law. Although he learned the traditional theories of the world and the surrounding universe through studies at several great universities, we remember him for his gift of free thinking and the courage to come to conclusions independent of those accepted by the institutions of that day. His theories of the nature of the universe, however, although largely ignored during his lifetime, were among the first to place the sun at the center of the universe.

A deeply religious man, he felt that his heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the universe in no way challenged his religious beliefs, because the sun, like God, was perfect, and belonged at the center of the universe.

Passing many long nights gazing into the heavens, he noticed that Mars was brighter at some times than at others. He reasoned that this could be accounted for if planets circled in their own respective orbits around the sun. If the planets traveled at different speeds, so it would logically follow that we would be nearer to Mars at at sometimes, and more distant at others. Would not Mars appear brightest when it was at its closest to the earth?

Although Copernicus erred in attributing a perfect, circular orbit to each planet, he theorized quite accurately that the axis of our own planet is tilted at an angle. Such a tilt would explain why the sun appeared to curve around the earth.

Most of the astronomers of his time had no use for Copernicus' theories which he published in 1543 in his book "De Revolutionibus Orbium Colestium," or "On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres."

We are fortunate as we continue in the discovery of Mars, for Copernicus' courage to make public his, then unusual, Theories. They later proved vital to our basic understanding of the universe as it exists.

Each of of the explorers on the journey to discover Mars was of no small importance. Some key contributors to our growing pool of knowledge was completely unaware of their important contributions. One such inventor was Hans Lipperhey, a spectacle-maker, who lived in the flourishing city of Middleburg, in the southwestern region of the Netherlands. Experimenting with new glass-making techniques, this enterprising Dutchman invented a "device by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses which he claims to be a new invention," 1 as recorded in a letter dated September, 1608, to the States General of the Netherlands. In October of the same year, Lipperhey applied for a patent on his invention which was later denied. The process of making such glasses could not be kept a secret. Hans Lipperhey, gazing through his marvelous glasses at a distant tree could hardly have known the uses his new invention would be put to in future years.

It was yet another scientist, Galileo Galilei, who first pointed Lipperhey's telescopic glasses heavenward. Even before he took the new invention and improved upon it to make a primitive telescope (by today's standards), Galileo was already known and respected in scientific circles.

Galileo was a mathematical astronomer, and though mathematical astronomers were not awarded the prestige that the University Philosophers held, he managed to make his theories hear, many of which annoyed some people in the academic world.

Galileo believed in the theories put forth by Copernicus a generation earlier that set the sun at the center of the universe, and the earth and her sister planets moving around it.

In 1616, the Roman church officially aligned itself with Aristotelian thought and decreed against Copernicus' theory of heliocentricity. The church stated that to think the sun is in the center and that the Earth moves is "erroneous in the faith." Who was this upstart, Galileo, to think he could teach anything to Aristotle? in 1632, Galileo faced the Catholic Inquisition, who forced him to recant his findings, saying that he truly believed that the earth did not move.

With the aid of his telescope, Galileo found more things in the sky that did not sit well with his contemporaries. He discovered that the planet Jupiter has two moons, a finding that went against current planetary theory. It is said that even at Galileo's invitation to gaze through his telescope to see the moons, scientists would not even look, so sure were they that Galileo's observations were false. While studying the fourth planet from the sun, Galileo found that Mars is not perfectly round. It has markings on on the surface that appeared to be seas and continents. Even though his findings were controversial, he continued to publish them, fearing ignorance more than ridicule.

One contemporary of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, applauded Galileo's findings. Fascinated by the heavenly bower of stars since childhood, Kepler made his living as a youth by selling astrological horoscopes. In fact, so wrapped up was he in things celestial that he often neglected to take care of himself, often appearing in public with his hair disheveled and his shirt wrinkled and stained.

Fortunately, Kepler's appearance did not hinder him in his pursuit of an education. He studied diligently, attending seminaries at Maulbronn and Adelberg, going on to study mathematics, philosophy, and theology at the University of Tubingen.

Kepler's dedication to his studies attracted the attention of Tycho Brae, a mathematician at the court of Emperor Rudolph II at Prague, who took notice of young Kepler and hired him in the year 1600, as an assistant. Tycho confided in him his most unsolvable problem.

The question concerned Mars' apparent retrograde motions. It seemed that tracking the movements of the Red Planet was confusing. Mars moved along in its orbit for awhile, and then appeared to reverse itself. To Tycho Brae it was a problem. To Johannes Kepler it was a challenge. For many nights Kepler watched the planet, and for just as many days he poured over Tycho's meticulous records, coming to the conclusion that Mars' backward motion was an illusion.

The planets circled the sun, Kepler believed, but at different distances, and therefore, at different speeds. Earth completed her orbit in 365.5 days compared to Mars' 687 days. Kepler reasoned correctly that the faster moving Earth overtakes and passes Mars in the course of their respective orbits, so it only appears that Mars slows to a halt in mid-orbit and reverses directions.

Johannes Kepler continued to study the careful notes of Tycho Brae. He tried to fit Mars' recorded positions in the sky and the dates of those observations into a circular orbit and found that it was impossible. He eventually wrote of Mars in a letter to a friend, "The orbit of the planet (Mars) is a perfect ellipse, providing the world with a more accurate map of our solar system.

Kepler continued his explorations tirelessly, and lived to contribute much more to the pool of human understanding.

Interest in the planet began to increase as our knowledge of the Red Planet grew. Scientists began to realize that Mars is a planet replete with similarities to the earth, itself.

Telescopes improved. In 1659, Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer found another similarity. One bright night, he found dark triangular mark on the surface of Mars. He observed the changes in position of the triangle as the planet rotated, to determine the length of the Martian day, which turned out to be 24 hours, or very nearly the same as a day on Earth. Later, the triangular spot that Huygens saw was named "Syrtis Major," and can be found on modern maps of Mars.

Aware of the similarities between our planet and Mars, Huygens wrote a book speculating about life on other planets. Fascination with the idea of extra-terrestrial life spread quickly. In 1686, Bernard de Fortenelle gave voice to the idea, echoing popular thinking of the day, when he said, "The earth swarms with inhabitants. Why then should nature, which is fruitful to an excess here, be so very barren in the rest of the planets?" Still, it was merely speculation. But the possibility focused the human imagination on the planet.

The discovery of Mars continued. In 1672, Giovanni Cassini became the first man to report finding polar caps on Mars. The list of similarities continued to grow.

In the next century, William Herschel studied the tilt of Mars' axis. He found it to be 23.98 degrees. The earth tilts at 23.5 degrees. Herschel was excited to add another similarity to the list. Mars had four seasons, just like earth, though the seasons last twice as long as those of earth, he observed, for the Martian year lasts twice as long as Earth's.

Herschell, like Cassini, saw icecaps. He watched as they changed in size and shape as the Martian seasons changed. These new discoveries moved him to say that the inhabitants of Mars "probably enjoy a situation in many respects similar to our own." (Mars Beckons)

Some of the most revered minds of the eighteenth century believed that life might exist on Mars. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin spoke for many of them, writing in Poor Richard's Almanac, "It is the opinion of all the modern philosophers and mathematicians, that the planets are habitable worlds."

Noted astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, was partly responsible for the heightened interest in Mars that continued to sweep the world towards the end of the next century. In 1877, after peering through an eight-inch telescope, he reported seeing dark areas on Mars, connected by lines, which he labeled ‘canali', meaning chanels or grooves. "Canali" can also mean canals, and that was how the word was spread. Word went out that the astronomer had seen canals on Mars. Canals, it was supposed, are the work of intelligent beings, with the capability of managing a scarcity of water, building canals to transport the scarce, precious liquid to where it is needed. Speculation about the possibility of intelligent life on Mars proliferated.

Percival Lowell, an American astronomer, became caught up in the excitement of Schiaparelli's "canali," and the theory of intelligent life. A brilliant, well-educated man, he used his considerable fortune to construct an observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. He found an appropriate site at 7,000 feet altitude and "far from the smoke of man," from which to make his own observations.

Lowell studied the Red Planet nightly during the summer and fall of 1894. He claimed to have seen Shiapparelli's "canali" spread over the planet like a lady's veil. He drew the Mars that he saw, with 184 canals, more than twice the number Shiaparelli had drawn. His sightings confirmed to his mind that there was, indeed, life on Mars, for who but an intelligent being could build such an elaborate network of canals?

Most astronomers at that time did not believe in the existence of the canals that Schiapparelli and Lowel claimed to have seen. They could detect no such lines through their telescopes. Edward E. Barnard, looking through a telescope in Mount Hamilton, California, that was even more powerful than the one Lowel used, said, "To save my soul, I can't believe in the canals as Schiaparelli draws them. I see details where some of his canals are, but they are not straight lines at all."

It was too late by then to stem the popular tide. The world was ready to accept the idea of intelligent life on Mars. People believed and Mars mania swept the earth. Sales of telescopes soared, and people all over the world became amature astronomers.

It is no surprise that less than half a century later, on a quiet Sunday evening, the radio broadcast of H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" caused widespread panic. Over the airwaves came the deep voice of Orson Wells, proclaiming to the world that hostile Martians had landed and were taking over the Earth.

As we reach the dawn of the twenty-first century, we can look over the last hundred years and find the names of many scientists, and visionary men and women whose contributions, both direct and indirect, have propelled us closer to the full discovery of the fourth planet from the sun. Tireless men and women like E. W. Maunder, whose observations cast doubt on the existence of artificial canals, and Eugene Antoniadi, a gifted astronomer shose skillflul mapping of Mars produced probably the best map of the planet prior to our our actual photograpic images from modern space probes come to mind. Proffessor Goddard, often refered to as the father of the space program, Audouin Dolfus, Gregory Roberts, Keiss, Keiss, Kerrer, and countless others, too numerous to list have scoured the Mars' surface with sophistocated telescopes in observatories all over the Earth. Even so, many people still did not feel that Mars had been sufficiently discovered. They began to dream of an incredible possibility that seemed beyond reason. They would go to Mars!


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