|Volume: 02, Issue: 01||01/14/2004|
Exploring the Red PlanetMillennia ago, the ancient Greeks watched the night sky closely and noticed that some of the stars moved in relation to the other stars from night to night. The Greeks called these stars planets, which meant "wanderers," and named them after their gods. One planet in particular had a reddish hue to it, which must have reminded the Greeks of blood, because they named it Ares after their god of war. The Romans adopted this nomenclature and named the planet Mars. Today, we know these planets aren't stars at all, but bodies in our solar system that reflect the sun's light. We also know the red we see in Mars is not the blood of those fallen in battle, but iron oxide, or rust. It was, however, a long, arduous journey to get to what we now know about the Red Planet.
Like the stars or our moon, humans have most likely been observing Mars since before any written record. But, aside from its color and movement through the stars, there wasn't much empirical evidence available to us until the invention of the telescope in the early 1600s.
In the year 1877, telescopic observation of Mars produced several important discoveries. American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered that, much like Earth, Mars had its own natural satellites. The two tiny moons Hall named Phobos and Deimos (after the name of Ares' sons in Greek mythology) orbit Mars at 9,000 km and 23,000 km respectively. Combined, they are less than a hundredth of the size of our own moon.
In that same year, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made a map of the visible surface features on Mars which included an intricate network of canyons he called canali. To the English reader, this name gave the impression that the cracks and ravines on the Martian surface were canals made by some sort of intelligence. This led to a widespread misconception about these enigmatic features.
Early Flights to Mars
After the invention of the telescope, the next leap toward exploring Mars was the invention of the rocket. In the 1960s, the American and Soviet Union space programs were engaged in a bit of a race to get to Mars. The first half dozen attempts (five Russian and one American) failed in one way or another. One of these spacecraft, the Russian Mars 1, may have actually flown by the planet, but it had lost communication much earlier in its mission. For the first four years of '60s, Mars was proving to be a very difficult planet to reach.
Launched late in 1964, NASA's Mariner 4 traveled for more than half a year until July 14, 1965, when it become the first successful flyby of Mars. In total, the mission returned about 5.2 million bits of information about Mars. By comparison, the web page you are currently reading is about 76,000 bits in size.
After Mariner 4, flybys became a bit more routine, but not without risk. The next step, establishing an orbiter or lander, wouldn't be accomplished until the early '70s when the Soviet Union launched Mars 2 and Mars 3. The latter mission was able to place a lander on the surface of Mars that communicated with the orbiter for 20 seconds before the instruments failed, possibly due to a Martian dust storm.
In 1975 NASA sent Viking 1 and 2, its own orbiters and landers, to Mars. These two very successful missions helped create the modern image of Mars as a planet populated with a variety of interesting and perplexing geological features. Then, for almost 15 years, Mars was left in peace.
The Invasion of Mars
Over the past ten years there have been thirteen missions to Mars, a concentration of interplanetary travel attempts we haven't seen since the sixties and seventies, and it looks as if we are in for more. This afternoon the President of the United States established new goals for NASA which include creating a long-term, inhabited base on our moon as the next stepping stone for human exploration of space. "With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond," the President announced.
To view the President's announcements about the future of space exploration, visit:
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