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Mars - Fact and Myth

Except for the Moon, only Mars has a surface that we can discern from the Earth. Mars is never very large. Even at its closest we see something no bigger than a basketball a mile and a half away. Imagine some writing on that basketball in a shade of brown that almost matches the cowhide of its surface. View this ball through plate glass smeared with petroleum jelly (the effect of the Earth's atmosphere) and you get an idea how hard it is to make out details on the surface of the planet. Yet since the time of the first telescopes this is exactly what astronomers have been trying to do.

Not all features on Mars are hard to see. The polar areas are distinctly lighter in color - not quite a white but a light shade of pink. We have watched them grow and recede with the seasons on Mars. The poles are so thin that the evaporate at the pole warmed by the Sun and freeze at the pole facing away from the Sun.

One puzzling feature is a a darker area near the center of the planet called Syrtis Major which has been alternately visible and then hidden for months at a time. At first this was attributed to growing season on Mars, but oddly the darkest periods occurred when Mars was warmest when you would expect plants to bloom. We discovered how you could hide something as large as the United States when we sent the first spacecraft to the Red Planet. Mars has far too little moisture (water, ammonia or carbon dioxide) to have substantial clouds, but it has more than enough dust. Warm seasons are the times when winds increase to high enough velocities to raise a planet wide dust storm. Once started, these storms can last many months.

We faced such a dust storm which started shortly after Mars passed particularly close to Earth this summer. Countless visitors to Frosty Drew Observatory were greatly disappointed that the image of Mars in our telescope was almost featureless. We displayed a series of photographs showing the storm begin in the middle latitude and quickly spread across the entire surface. We actually had our best views of the planet in the Spring long before Earth passed close to Mars. In 2003, Mars will make the closet approach to Earth in tens of thousands of years. I know that many people will arrive expecting a wonderful view of Mars in the August and September of 2003. I hope we won't disappoint them, but once again Earth will be passing Mars during the warmest time on Mars when the winds pick up and may start another dust storm.

Nothing excites interest in Mars more than the possibility of life. We certainly haven't excluded the possibility of simple life forms like bacteria but the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Borroughs and the "canali" of Giavanni Schiaparelli will never come to pass. How could generations of observers come to believe they saw "canals" on the surface. Perhaps the most reasonable explanation is the human eye itself. If you stare at something which has overlapping shades of the same color (reddish brown) the eye attempts to make borders between the regions. Since most of the best observing was done at the eyepiece until color film became adequate in the middle of the 20th century, we "saw" regions connected by lines. Spacecraft saw something quite different, large meteor crates, extinct huge volcanos and upland areas darker than other areas on the planet. There was much to be seen, but no indication of higher life forms.

The Roman Mars and his Greek counterpart Ares was the mad god of war. Unlike Minerva/Athena who only championed just wars and self defense, Mars provoked war simply to cause suffering and chaos. He was all too willing to change sides if this would lengthen a conflict. His companions were the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse - Fear (Deimos) Loathing (Phobos), Plague and Famine. Of all the major Olympian gods, few stories featuring Mars come down to us. Even when he did appear in major epics such as the Illiad, he was always secondary to other gods and goddesses in spite of the devastation he created. He is the last in a long line of principle gods. Perhaps the fact the his great grandfather [Uranus] and his grandfather [Saturn] shared a wife (Gaia) and that his mother (Juno/Hera) and father (Jupiter/Zeus) were brother and sister created this inbred monster of a god.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Dec 1, 2001
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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