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By Frank Stratford of MarsDrive
Mars. The Red Planet. Fourth planet from the Sun and close neighbour to Earth. Since prehistory people on Earth observed that faint star with a reddish hue and wondered what it meant. Red has always been a colour that represented war, blood and alarm and to human eyes it grabbed our attention from the start.
No one knows what was happening on Mars during our prehistoric times but perhaps future human explorers may uncover such fascinating details as they scour Mars for signs of life and water. The Roman god named Mars was actually first associated with agriculture before becoming linked to the Greek god Ares the god of war.
Observations of Mars were made from even before the Egyptian empire where in 1570 BC as early as the 28th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, Egyptians refer to Mars as "Horus of the Horizon", a God whom they depicted as a human with the head of a hawk. They also spoke of the planet travelling backwards, a reference to its retrograde motion”
In 300 BC Aristotle noted that Mars was indeed further from the Earth than the Moon by observing its position in the sky. From these times many different observations were compiled by people like Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and with Galileo in 1609 making the first direct observation of Mars via his newly created invention the telescope.
Gradually the observations being made revealed greater and greater detail of Mars with the first pictures of Mars being drawn by Francisco Fontana in 1636 where he described Mars as not being “uniform in colour”. These observations were soon followed by the first description by Christiaan Huygens in 1659 of a feature of Mars of what we now believe to be Syrtis Major.
In 1659 Christiaan Huygens also made the first close to accurate estimations of the distance of Mars from Earth and the period of the Martian day (24 hours+). In 1666 Gian Domenico Cassini observed the polar cap of Mars and determined the length of the Martian day to be 24 hours and 40 minutes. In 1672 Christiaan Huygens made a drawing of Mars which included a southern polar cap for the first time.
For those times, to be able to actually see another planet would have been a most profound experience. To start seeing features and being able to make accurate measurements of distance, orbit and day length had started them all thinking about the similarities to Earth and in 1698 Huygens published a book called Cosmotheoros, a book about whether or not there is life on Mars.
From 1698 and possibly before that time people had started to conclude that life must exist on Mars and in 1877 Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), an Italian astronomer, produces a detailed map of Mars based on his observations of the planet with an 8.5 inch refractor during a favorable conjunction. His map gave classical names to the features he observed. These feature names became widely accepted.
This map is also famous for the inclusion of features Schiaparelli identified as canali, an Italian word for a naturally occuring channel. The 2 moons of Mars Phobos and Deimos were also discovered in 1877 by Asaph Hall an American astronomer and in 1894 Percival Lowell (1855-1916), American astronomer, establishes the Lowell Observatory outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.
The observatory is built in time to carry out observations of the 1894 opposition of Mars. Using 12" and 18" refractors, observations are made continuously from the end of May 1894 through April 1895 by Lowell and his assistants W.H. Pickering and A.E. Douglass. These observations marked a turning point in the history of Mars explorations and lead to the photographing of the Martian canals in 1905 by C.O. Lampland. From that time until the first flyby of Mariner 4 in 1964 debate continued as to whether Mars had any kind of life on the surface.
On the 14th of July 1965 Mariner 4 beamed the first pictures and data back from Mars. This first successful flyby of Mars returned 22 pictures of Mars while passing 9845 kilometers above the planet's surface. The most important finding of the mission was that the atmospheric pressure was between 4 and 7 mbar, based on data from the radio-occultation experiment. Contact with the probe was lost on 12/20/1967. This mission ended centuries of speculations and ignited a new chapter in the exploration of the red planet.
Succeeding missions returned ever larger amounts of pictures and data confirming that Mars was a sterile and hostile world to life. Mariner 6 passed by in July of 1969 taking 75 photos and in August of that same year Mariner 7 returned 126 photos and data.
On the 27th of November 1971 the Russian Mars 2 probe became the first human made instrument to land on the surface of Mars. It was unsuccessful in beaming back any information and Mars was in the midst of a global dust storm at the time so the orbiter sent back no useful pictures. November of 1971 marked the beginning of man made instruments being sent to explore the surface of Mars and on 20th July 1976 the American Viking 1 touched down in Chryse Planitia.
The lander was more successful than expected returning vital data about Mars until its last communications on 11/13/1982. It gave us our first up close surface data and pictures and forever changed our view of Mars up to that point. In 1997 the first mobile rover mission made it to Mars and inspired a new generation to the amazing features of the red planet with its stunning discoveries and pictures.
Today we are living in a time where man has now the first long term on surface missions still going on Mars in the form of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity which arrived at Mars in early 2004 and have given us a new appreciation of the geological processes which made Mars what it is today and has provided us with very human like views of the planets surface features. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has also reached Mars and will start beaming back the most detailed high resolution pictures and data possible later in 2006.
From this and future missions like EXO Mars and Mars Science Lab our knowledge of Mars keeps on expanding and all of the information we have so far leads us to want to send humans even more. Mars may seem hostile and far away but it is the planet we have the most information on and even now it has an unprecedented amount of probes orbiting and on its surface sending back information on a daily basis.