Wednesday 10 July 2024

July 15th 1965 - The day the Martians died

 Mars, the red planet, 'the god of war', has fascinated people more than any other in the solar system because of the idea that we might find aliens there.


The debate over the Martian canals began in 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first described seeing 'channels' on the planet. His word 'canalli' meaning channels was   mistranslated into 'canals', which some people took literally, assuming that if people built canals on Earth, canals on Mars must be built by Martians. Some astronomers disagreed, but the idea took hold.


The argument went on for the next 40 years or so. In 1894 the astronomer Percival Lowell built a large observatory at Flagstaff in Arizona to study the canals. There were polar caps on Mars which appear similar to those on Earth, and the theory was that as the ice melted, the water would flow through the canals. Lowell became the most vocal supporter of the idea of life on Mars and would write books and newspaper articles supporting his argument.


As our knowledge of Mars increased during the 20th century, the idea of Martians and their canals faded. By the 1950s and early 1960s it was still believed that there might be plants and lichens of the kind found in tundra on Earth, and maybe some small rodent-like creatures.


NASA's Mariner 4 space craft launched on November 28th 1964. This very successful mission was the first probe to fly past Mars, at a distance of 6,118 miles (9,846km) above the Martian surface. It was the first time close photographs of another planet were taken. Sadly, from this point onwards, 'Martians' were doomed.


Mariner 4 sent back twenty-one photographs, which were poor and grainy. However, this 1960s cutting edge technology was sufficient. Rather than showing tundra-like vegetation and lakes of icy water, the images indicated that Mars was covered in craters looked more like the Moon.


The idea of life on Mars resembling anything we know on Earth ended on this day.


Today astronomers are certain that there was once water on Mars. Could this mean that life existed there? Mariner 4 killed the Martians, but there are still a number of spacecraft orbiting Mars, and robots driving across its surface, trying to answer this tantalising question.








No comments:

Post a Comment