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Mars part 1

Myths and early observations

The Babylonians were the first to record the existence of Mars in approximately 400BC, calling it Nergal. Nergal was the underworld personification of the sun God Utu and the God of the netherworld, bringing war, pestilence, fever and devastation. nergal The Egyptians came to understand that the shifting positions of the planets set them aside from the fixed stars, but were not that inspired by the discovery and simply called Mars Har Decher - the Red One. The Romans were a lot more imaginative and like the Babylonians imbued the planet with the nature of violence and death. To the Romans, the planet was Aries or Mars, the God of war. He was generally portrayed in full battle attire with a crested helmet and shield. We get our name for the month of March (Martius) from the Romans.

The first scientific observations

The modern age of observation of Mars began in the Tycho Brahe 1500's, when the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546 - 1601) made some excellent observations of the planet, sufficiently accurate that his student Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) was able in 1609 to prove that the orbit of Mars was elliptical rather than the classical assumption of a circular orbit. Brahe was an odd character to say the least, and after losing a portion of his nose in a dual had it replaced by prosthetic one made of gold and silver.

First map of marsGalileo Galilei (1564 - 1642) was also studying Mars in 1609, the first time it has been seen through a telescope. This ushered in a new age of detailed observation. Christiaan Huygens (1629 - 1695) drew the first map of Mars (see left) in 1659 and calculated the duration of the Martian day at 24 hours, a figure refined a few years later (in 1666) by Giovanni Cassini (1625 - 1712) to a more accurate 24 hours and 40 minutes.

Life On Mars

In 1698, Huygens was the first to speculate about the existence of life on Mars in a posthumously published speculative treatise called Cosmotheros. This radical idea was to be of lasting impact, and was popularised even more by Sir William Herschel (1738 - 1822), the discover of Uranus, who having observed the passage of two stars behind mars, saw they were not dimmed by the appreciable haze of an atmosphere and so concluded that the atmosphere of Mars was thin in nature. He went on to speculate that the Martian inhabitants "probably enjoy a situation similar to our own." He also mistakenly interpreted the dark areas on Mars as seas and light areas as land, but he was of course working within the limits of science at the time and as such, these speculations were perfectly reasonable.

Many other astronomers would continue to postulate the existence of life on the planet. Emmanuel Liais proposed in 1860 that the dark regions were vegetation and Camille Flammarion suggested much the same in 1873, though he attributed the red colour of Mars itself to vegetation. It was during this period that the idea that Mars might be criss-crossed with canals came to prominence. Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) observed Mars in 1858 and describes features he called "canali", but this actually translates as channels and not canals. The idea of canals stuck, and, this error was to be compounded by Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), who also used the phrase canali in his 1877 observations. The Suez Canal has been completed in 1869 and so the public were fired up to appreciate the engineering splendour that a Martian canal system implied, but more than any other person, it was to be the astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) who would do most to advance the cause of the canals and life on Mars.

Percival Lowell

Lowell began his observations at Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894 and the following year published the first of three sensational books in which he argued that the so called canals represented the work of a Martian civilisation and were in fact a vast irrigation system. In his first book, he wrote, "...that the lines form a system; that, instead of running anywhither, they join certain points to certain others, making thus, not a simple network, but one whose meshes connect centres directly with one another,--is striking at first sight, and loses none of its peculiarity on second thought. For the intrinsic improbability of such a state of things arising from purely natural causes becomes evident on a moment's consideration." Of course it was just a few years later in 1897 that H G Wells would publish his War of the Worlds, in which a race of Martians are losing the fight to irrigate their dying world.

Part 2 >

Mars Stats

Mass (kg) 6.421e+23
Mass (Earth = 1) 1.0745e-01 Equatorial radius (km) 3,397.2
Equatorial radius (Earth = 1) 5.3264e-01
Mean density (gm/cm^3) 3.94
Mean distance from the Sun (km) 227,940,000
Mean distance from the Sun (Earth = 1) 1.5237
Rotational period (hours) 24.6229
Rotational period (days) 1.025957
Orbital period (days) 686.98
Mean orbital velocity (km/sec) 24.13
Orbital eccentricity 0.0934
Tilt of axis (degrees) 25.19
Orbital inclination (degrees) 1.850
Equatorial surface gravity (m/sec^2) 3.72
Equatorial escape velocity (km/sec) 5.02
Visual geometric albedo 0.15 Magnitude (Vo) -2.01
Minimum surface temperature -140°C
Mean surface temperature -63°C
Maximum surface temperature 20°C
Atmospheric pressure (bars) 0.007
Atmospheric Composition
Carbon Dioxide (CO2): 95.32%
Nitrogen (N2): 2.7%
Argon (Ar): 1.6%
Oxygen (O2): 0.13%
Water (H2O): 0.03%
Neon (Ne): 0.00025%

Data from the Solarviews website. For much more detailed data about Mars, visit this excellent site.

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See also


Dying Planet by Robert Markley

Dying Planet by Robert Markley. A detailed and in-depth exploration of the planet Mars in both fact and fiction, and how the two have become intertwined.

Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton

Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton. Telling the history of attempts to map the surface of Mars. The book includes detail on fictional Mars.

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