The soldiers of ancient Rome followed a rigorous training drill. Every morning they would march to a field just outside Rome and train for hours. The field where they trained was named after the planet Mars. There was a reason for that. Mars was the Roman god of war and it was believed that he had never lost a war.
The ancient Greeks and Romans called Mars the Red Planet because it appeared in the night sky as a star bathed in the colour of blood. This led the ancients to equate Mars with war and aggression. People thought of it with awe. Every time they looked up at the night sky and saw a blood-red dot moving ominously from west to east, they were filled with fear.
They also found it strange that at certain times, Mars behaved in a suspicious manner. All of a sudden, it would change direction and move from east to west. It was as if it was making an abrupt hairpin turn and heading in the opposite direction. And then, a couple of months later, it would make another hairpin turn and resume its journey from west to east.
To them, Mars resembled an angry warrior whose behaviour was erratic and unpredictable. Did the planet really stop, go backward for days, change its mind and then continue to move forward? Or was it just a ploy to surprise an enemy up there and waylay it?
After the telescope was invented, astronomers could peer at Mars and study it a bit more closely. The planet changed colour in different seasons. There were huge dust storms that swept the plains and darkened the entire planet for days. It had white polar caps, which grew quickly in winter and almost disappeared in summer. The astronomers also saw several straight lines criss-crossing the planet’s surface. These lines joined greenish areas that looked as if they were covered by vegetation.
This led to the birth of a fascinating idea. It was thought that the straight lines were canals built by Martians to carry water for watering their plants. During summer in the southern hemisphere of Mars, the polar ice would melt and provide running water to the rest of the planet through a big network of canals built by an ancient, intelligent and technologically advanced race of Martians. As the summer progressed on Mars, the canals would fill up and the plants would get water and blossom, making them visible to humans on Earth.
This idea grew and prospered and led to further theories. If the Martian race was not only warlike but intelligent too, should we fear an invasion from these Martians? An American radio play in 1938 convinced people that creatures from Mars had actually landed on Earth in their war machines. There was panic in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people hid themselves or ran away from their homes. Almost the entire nation was convinced that Martians had invaded their country.
Red Turtle's latest 'Destination Mars' by S.K. Das
Of course, the whole thing was just a joke. Once space probes were invented and sent to Mars over the last fifty years, pictures taken by these probes showed that no such canals exist there. There is no sign of life—plants or intelligent Martians—on the planet. Mars is a very cold, dry planet where liquid water cannot exist on the surface.
Scientists have now discovered that Mars is even more complex than they thought it was. It is peppered with craters and cut by canyons deep enough to swallow the Earth’s Grand Canyon. It has the tallest volcano in the solar system. There are large, dry channels on the surface which indicate that once there was running water on the Martian surface.
This means Mars was once wetter and warmer, and conditions for life existed at some point of time in the Martian history. Scientists also point to pieces of Mars that are to be found on Earth. These are stones from the surface of Mars that were thrown out as a result of some impact and landed on Earth as meteorites. These stones have grains that are mineral formations similar to formations produced on Earth by certain organisms living in seas. Scientists believe that this could be evidence pointing to the possible existence of life early in the history of Mars. Was there liquid water on the Martian surface? Did life ever begin on the Red Planet? We need to know much more about Mars to answer these questions.
We are well on the way to discovering more and more about Mars. Countries have been sending space probes to the Red Planet for fifty years now, and within another twenty years perhaps humans will visit it too. A lot has been learnt from these space probes but there is still a lot more to learn. For that reason, we have to keep on exploring Mars. Such exploration is important because it is as much about Earth and its origins as it is about Mars.
Destination Mars: Secrets of the Red Planet Revealed by S.K. Das
Published by Red Turtle (an imprint of Rupa Publications) 2013