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.
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
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.
Galileo 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.
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.
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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