Mars before the Space Age

Jones, Barrie W. (2008). Mars before the Space Age. International Journal of Astrobiology, 7(2) pp. 143–155.



Mars has surely been scrutinised since the dawn of humankind. Its appearance every couple of years like a drop of blood in the sky led to warlike attributes in the ancient world. In the 16th century Tycho Brahe made accurate observations of the position of Mars that enabled Johannes Kepler to obtain his first two laws of planetary motion. These in turn were explained by Newton's laws of motion and gravity. In the 17th century the first telescope observations were made, but Mars is small and very little surface detail could be discerned.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries telescopes improved, revealing many dark areas on the red tinted surface. During the close opposition of 1877 sufficient detail could be seen that enabled Giovanni Schiaparelli to announce that he could see about 40 canali on Mars. This led to the saga of the canals of Mars, finally laid to rest in 1971 when Mariner 9 made observations from Martian orbit showing that the canali/canals do not exist.

Belief that there was life on Mars was widespread in the 19th century. However, the majority of astronomers never believed in Martian intelligence. Least controversial was the view that the dark areas were some form of plant life. This view persisted until Mariner 4 flew past Mars in 1965 and discovered a far thinner atmosphere than previously thought. This was a low point, with impact craters dominating the images. It was Mariner 9 that revealed much more promising landscapes, including volcanic features, and others indicating that water had flowed across the surface, particularly when Mars was young. Thus, the contemporary era of Mars exploration began.

Our picture of Mars today is not only much more complete than that before Mariner 4, in several ways it is quite different. The belief, however, that there might be life on Mars persists – subsurface life cannot be ruled out and, failing that, there might be ancient fossils on Mars.

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