MARS IS HERE AGAIN
I am really excited to be writing about Mars. I grew up in the days when it was widely believed that Mars had canals which carried water to many places on the planet. There were creatures, maybe even people on the planet, which had a culture older than any on our Earth.
The Mars creatures in the public’s mind were vastly more intelligent than Earth dwellers. They used the canal water for agriculture, manufacturing and drinking.
In October 1938, Orson Welles and other radio actors presented a radio drama which pretended to cover, in a fake newscast, an invasion of Earth by Martian creatures. It was very realistic.
The Mars creatures were landing in rural New Jersey, burning the crops, killing citizens with ray-guns and poisonous smoke which spread with great effect in all directions, and were landing by the hundreds.
The result of this radio drama was a general panic, even though there were several explanations during the program that this was drama, not reality.
I did not hear the Orson Welles program, but most Americans knew about it and felt sorry for all those who were terrified by it. I heard (not confirmed) that some had jumped from buildings to their death.
The ideas concerning the Martian canals, however, were accepted by nearly everybody, including some astronomers like the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli, director of the Milan Observatory.
In 1877, Mars came quite close to Earth in is orbit, about 35 million miles distant. It was THE chance to study Mars. Shiaparelli seemed to see canals going in many directions with his 8” refractor telescope. (8” refers to the diameter of the main lens in the front of the ‘scope.)
Schiaparelli wrote of his findings: “Channels (canali in Italian) but many of his readers believed the word meant canals, made by intelligent beings. There was widespread acceptance: “there are canals on Mars’ surface.”
This idea was taken up by the American Percival Lowell who had an observatory built outside of Flagstaff, AZ, especially for his own use to study Mars. Lowell was totally obsessed by Mars’ canals. He purchased a 27” refractor, an especially fine and expensive and large instrument for installation in the observatory.
He pursued his consuming interest and mapped the canals he saw. There were more than Schiaparelli mapped. He wrote a book Mars, published in 1895.
Space probes to Mars indicate clearly that there are NO canals on Mars.
But we do know a lot of fascinating facts about Mars. To start with:
- Viking I and II tested the soil to see if it is capable of growing crops. Results are inconclusive, but the possibility is not ruled out.
- Its diameter at the equator is 4222 miles, a bit more than one-half of Earth’s diameter.
- It has the largest volcano in the Solar System: Mount Olympus, which is as large as the state of Ohio, including its massive base. It is inactive.
- It has a huge canyon, Marineris Valley, which would stretch from New York City to San Francisco if it could be moved to Earth.
- Its surface had been largely covered by water, which now has been lost to evaporation or has been absorbed by the soil.
- The atmosphere is very thin, mostly carbon dioxide gas. It is so thin that it does not moderate Mars’ low temperature (minus 135 degrees Celsius to plus 30 degrees Celsius. It does not stop harmful ultra-violet radiation from the sun or deadly cosmic radiation from space.
- Its surface gravity is .377 x Earth. If one weighs 200 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 75 pounds on Mars. Such a trip to resolve obesity is not recommended in the words of the late Patrick Moore.
- Mars’ day is 24 hours, 40 minutes. The tilt of its axis is 25.2 degrees. Mars in these respects is much like Earth’s day of 24 hours. Earth’s tilt is 23.5 degrees.
These facts may stir a desire to see the real planet in our night sky.
Mars on a clear night in November is seen in the center of the southern sky. Its red tint should be a major clue that it is Mars.
If you use binoculars to study Mars, the red tint will be more obvious. You will have a slight chance of seeing a few surface features, especially if you use a tripod to steady the binoculars. Mars will be 49.8 million miles distant from Earth in November. Happy viewing!