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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Martian Odyssey

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water...Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. – The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

Out here in Spain we’re usually blessed with clear night skies so we can view the stars and planets without too much light pollution. There’s something about stargazing that tugs the imagination, a sense of wonder, perhaps. 

Nasa just released a video revealing what Mars may have looked like as a young planet billions of years ago.

It appears to have had a thick atmosphere that was warm enough to support oceans of liquid water - a crucial ingredient for life.

The animation, created by Nasa's Conceptual Image Lab, shows how the surface of Mars might have developed over four billion years. The artist's concept is based on evidence that Mars was once very different. It shows vast Martian lakes surrounded by mountain ranges, beneath Earth-like blue skies and rapidly moving clouds.

The shift from a warm and wet climate to a cold and dry one is shown as the animation progresses. The lakes dry up and transform into a rocky landscape with canyons, volcanoes and craters. The atmosphere gradually turns to the dusty pink and tan hues seen on Mars today.

Nasa scientist Dr Pan Conrad told Sky News: "We think that the when Mars was created it was a lot wetter and warmer than it is today. It probably lost much of its atmosphere over time and that's how it came to be such a desert and cold place."

Red dust - from the iron in its soil - now covers almost all the surface of the Red Planet, which has an average temperature of -27C (-80F).

Nasa's Curiosity rover has been exploring the surface of the planet since August 2011 and has made several discoveries to support the theory that Mars was once able to support life. These include pebbles providing evidence that a stream once flowed on the planet, and more recently, Martian dust, dirt and soil suggesting a "substantial" amount of water on Mars.

The planet’s atmosphere is over ninety-five percent carbon dioxide and its rocks, soil and sky have a red or pink hue. The distinct red colour was observed by stargazers throughout history and the planet was named by the Romans in honour of their god of war. Other civilizations had similar names, for instance the ancient Egyptians called the planet the red one. 

It has two orbiting moons, Phobos and Deimos.
The Red Planet, fourth from the sun, diameter 4,200 miles, with a day forty minutes longer than ours and a gravity only thirty-eight percent that of Earth’s, Mars is more than an astronomical sphere.  As a symbol Mars is imbedded in our culture, even in our psyche.

Galileo was the first to observe Mars through a telescope and eighteenth century Frenchman Giovanni Cassini first noted the planet’s poles. 

However, in 1892 it was Schiaparelli who was responsible for many of the popular illusions about the planet.  When he saw grooves or channels on the surface of Mars, his report in Italian used the word canali to describe the phenomenon. Translations interpreted canali as canals rather than channels and the description evoked an image of an old and sophisticated but slowly dying civilisation on our sister planet. 
Three years later American astronomer Percival Lowell published a non-fiction book, Mars, in which he speculated about the terrain and the presence of life on the planet.

These works were read by Wells and fired his imagination in the writing of his classic The War of the Worlds which was given the Spielberg blockbuster treatment, inevitably transposing the story to the United States.  A British version came out at the same time (2005), H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Lowell published two more books, Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908).  Fourteen years after Lowell’s death, Pluto was discovered – its presence beyond Neptune had been predicted by Lowell. He’s probably turning in his grave now that Pluto has been demoted from planet to dwarf planet (plutoid).

Then in 1911 the serial ‘Under the moons of Mars’ was published in the monthly All Story magazine.  Written by the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the story was a great hit and was later published in book form as A Princess of Mars.  This was the first of eleven swashbuckling imaginative books Burroughs set on Mars – or, as the inhabitants called it, Barsoom. The first three volumes in the series actually constitute a single super epic. A film version, John Carter was released in 2012 to a mixed reception; the fans loved it, most of the critics panned it, and the marketing was abysmal.
Burroughs’s tales showed great innovation for their time, and the exciting stories caught the interest of millions of readers, helping to inspire serious interest in Mars and in space exploration. 

Many later science fiction works, from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers films of the 1930s, to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, to the Star Wars films, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, about terra-forming the red planet, also offer nods in Burroughs’s direction. Robert A Heinlein’s novel The Number of the Beast and Alan Moore’s graphic novels of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen directly reference Barsoom.

This article’s title is taken from the classic short story by StanleyWeinbaum published in 1934.
Mars and Martians naturally figured in science fiction books and movies over the years but never seemed to capture the popular imagination until 1978 when interest in Mars was revived by Jeff Wayne who put together a memorable and quite eerie musical version of Wells’s The War of the Worlds, narrated by Richard Burton.

In June 2003 – when the positions of Mars and Earth provided for the shortest possible route, a condition that prevails every twenty-six months - the Mars Express rocket was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by the European Space Agency. Comprising an orbiter and its lander, Beagle 2, its journey took six months at a velocity of 10,800km an hour.  The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Mars on Christmas Day, 2003. Pictures and information are still being collected by the orbiter. The lander failed to respond to Earth-based instructions so was deemed a failure. It’s unlikely that it was tampered with by any Martians, however...  Indeed, Mars Express, so called because of the rapid and streamlined development time, represents the European Space Agency’s first visit to another planet in the Solar System. The spacecraft borrows technology from the failed Mars 96 mission and from ESA’s Rosetta mission that is currently en route to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mission helps to answer fundamental questions about the geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water and potential for life on Mars. For the past decade, ESA’s Mars Express orbiter has been observing atmospheric structure on the Red Planet. Among its discoveries is the presence of three separate ozone layers, each with its own characteristics. A new comparison of spacecraft data with computer models explains how global atmospheric circulation creates a layer of ozone above the planet's southern winter pole. The full article can be found at

Probes sent from Earth beginning in the late 20th century have yielded a dramatic increase in knowledge about the Martian system, focused primarily on understanding its geology and possible habitability potential.

Engineering interplanetary journeys is very complicated, so the exploration of Mars has experienced a high failure rate, especially in earlier attempts. Roughly two-thirds of all spacecraft destined for Mars failed before completing their missions, and there are some that failed before their observations could begin. However, missions have also met with unexpected levels of success, such as the twin Mars Exploration Rovers operating for years beyond their original mission specifications.

Since 6 August 2012, there have been two scientific rovers on the surface of Mars beaming signals back to Earth (Opportunity, and Curiosity of the Mars Science Laboratory mission), and three orbiters currently surveying the planet: Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

To date, no sample return missions have been attempted for Mars, and one attempted return mission for Mars' moon Phobos (Fobos-Grunt) has failed. (previous 4 paragraphs, from Wikipedia).

On 18 November (Monday!), the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), is set to launch. It will explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Scientists will use MAVEN data to determine the role that loss of volatile compounds, such as CO2, N2, and H2O, from the Mars atmosphere to space has played over time, giving insight into the history of Mars atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability. On 8 November Maven was placed on top of the Atlas V rocket; checks so far look good for launch. See

The magic of Mars still exerts its influence and pulls us there…


Richard Prosch said...

When I was 12, I saved a couple dollars for one of the Aurora monster models, but ispent it instead on THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES at a school book fair. I still have the copy --and no regret.

Nik said...

I can relate to that, Richard! I did similar kinds of things, spending bus fare on comics and walking home!