There are now four planets visible in the night sky. After dusk
Saturn shines in the southwest between the constellations
Scorpius and Sagittarius. By 9:00 Mars glitters red just above
the horizon toward the east. A couple of hours later radiant
Jupiter makes his appearance. And finally in the predawn sky
brilliant Venus arrives.
Usually the brightest planets are Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn
and Mercury in that order. But for a few days around September
22nd Mars actually outshines Jupiter. Not since 1971 has this
cold desert planet shone so brightly.
The ancients associated Mars with the darker side of man. Perhaps
its red color subliminally suggests blood and evil. Mars was
Nergal, lord of the underworld, for the Babylonians. The Greeks
called it Ares, the god of War. Mars also reigned over the
bloodstained battlefields of the militant Romans.
Mars has long fascinated sky watchers. At the turn of the century
the famed astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell
Observatory in Arizona, was certain there was life on Mars. In a
powerful new telescope he saw perfectly straight canals over 100
miles long. He noted the varying color of Mars through the year
and attributed the change to the seasonal growth of vegetation.
The esteemed Lowell boldly concluded that the canals were built
by intelligent creatures to irrigate fields of crops. This
conjures up fantastic images of Martian melons, Astral
artichokes, Canal corn, God o’ War beets and Cosmic cucumbers.
Scientists using stronger telescopes and unmanned spaceships have
dispelled most of the far-fetched Martian notions. The canals are
a result of an optical illusion. Humans have a tendency to create
order and patterns out of a random array of shapes. That’s
apparently what Percival did. The seasonal color change is not
from growing and dying plants but is from gigantic dust storms
that rage across the planet’s surface. And, with apologies to
H.G. and Orsen Wells, no detectable evidence of life has yet been
Beginning with Mariner 4 in 1965 a succession of spacecraft has
flown by or landed on Mars. The two orbiting Viking spacecraft in
1976 sent Landers (not Ann, but vehicles the size of small
houses) parachuting down to the surface. Sophisticated
instruments chemically analyzed soil and rocks. The red color of
the planet is not from Martian blood but from iron oxide in the
soil. Mars is rusty. Other experiments tested for the presence of
complex molecules associated with life. The results were negative
but far from conclusive.
Close-up photographs of Mars reveal surface features of immense
proportions. The tallest mountain in the solar system, Olympus
Mons, bursts from the Martian plain. It rises 17 miles, that’s 3
times higher than Mt. Everest! And after growing for a billion
years this vast volcano may still be active. You could drop the
entire state of Rhode Island into its massive caldera. However I
suggest you start with Washington, D.C..
A canyon or actually a series of canyons–3,000 miles long and
13,000 feet deep–rips across the planet’s exterior. This gorge
dwarfs the Grand Canyon and would stretch from San Francisco to
Philadelphia. Numerous other channels resemble meandering earthly
streambeds. This evidence suggests that powerful rivers, larger
than any on Earth, once etched the Martian surface.
The prominent polar caps of Mars are frozen carbon dioxide (dry
ice) and underneath lies permanently frozen water (permafrost).
The canyons, rust and ice all suggest that Mars may once have
been a much wetter planet. Where there is liquid water, life can
exist. The next spacecraft to visit Mars will continue to search
for evidence of past life by performing more sensitive soil
This month’s exceptional brightness of Mars, caused by the
coincidental positions of the Earth, Mars and the Sun, will not
happen again until the fall of 2003. Don’t wait until then. Take
an evening stroll and enjoy our brilliant sanguinary neighbor.