Astronomer Tycho Brahe

BC: The Mythologized Mars

Visible as the red planet in the night sky, Mars was recognized by Ancient Babylonians as an aggressive force. They called Mars Nergal, the star of death, and on its day (Tuesday) performed ceremonies to ward off this planet’s hostile influences.

While Ancient Egyptians called Mars Har Decher, the Red One, and the Greeks named it Ares after their god of war, Mars got its moniker from the Romans. In Roman mythology, Mars was a mighty warrior, the god of spring who ushered in the season of empire-expanding battle.

1500s: Eyeball observations and radical theories

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) presented the blasphemous theory that the planets in the solar system orbit around the sun instead of the earth. Prior to the invention of the telescope, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) calculated the position of Mars.

1600s: A difficult time for science

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a student of Tycho Brahe, proposed that Mars had an elliptical orbit. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who was tried in the Inquisition for subscribing to Copernicus’ controversial theory, observed Mars with a primitive telescope. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1696) studied Mars with a more advanced telescope, observing the planet’s south pole and speculating about Martian life.

One of Schiaperelli’s maps of Mars (1888)

1700s: Research data begins

Continued improvements in telescope design allowed astronomers, such as Brit Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) to make important, and surprisingly accurate observations of the Red Planet, including that of its axial tilt (estimated then at 30 degrees; now thought to be 25.19 degrees), the position of its poles and its thin atmosphere.

1800s: The Canal Craze

Milan astronomer Giovanni Schiaperelli (1835-1910) created early maps of Mars, naming more than 300 landscape features he viewed through his telescope. In 1877, his announcement of the existence of Martian  “caneli,” or channels in Italian, was misinterpreted by English-speakers, who believed he had discovered alien-made canals.

1900s: Martians invade pop culture

American Percival Lowell (1855-1916) wrote that the canals on Mars were artificially-made and promoted the belief in life forms on the Red Planet. Although this idea was questioned by other scientists, who showed canals to be an illusion, Martians and alien folklore permeated 20th century pop culture. Beginning in the 1960s, with flyby missions, the US and Russia spent billions studying Mars and trying to land space probes on the Red Planet, which proved to be very difficult.]. In 1976 two NASA Viking probes showed Mars to be a dry, uninhabitable planet. In 1996 NASA published evidence for ancient microscopic life on Mars, a claim later discounted by some of the same scientists.

Mars Phoenix Lander (Courtesy Nasa/LMSS)

2000s: The exploration of Mars

NASA’s Mars Odyssey conducted the a large-scale geological survey of Mars, beginning in 2001. In 2002, data from Odyssey showed evidence of vast ice beneath the surface of Mars. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express set off in 2003 with its Mars Express Orbiter and Beagle Lander. Although contact with the lander was lost, the orbiter confirmed the presence of ice on Mars. NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, launched in 2003 and 2004, began a long geological survey of the planet, relaying evidence that the planet was once drenched in water. NASA launched a two-year science study in 2005 with its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Its Phoenix Mars Lander (2007), subsequent rover missions (2009-2011), Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe (2009) and Europe’s ExoMars (2011) will provide valuable data in preparation for the first human mission to Mars.