Richard Worth 26th November 2018
Way back in May, Nasa launched robotic lander Mars InSight. After seven months, on 26 November 2018, InSight is set to land on our nearest planetary neighbour and begin probing its crusty surface, to get to at all the juicy knowledge inside. InSight’s objective is to monitor seismic activity and the geological makeup of Mars in a bid to better understand how planets can form, and, if possible, avoid awakening any ancient and eldritch evil that may be sleeping beneath the Red Planet’s surface. And because InSight didn’t even buy Mars dinner first, we thought that we should get to know the history of Mars a little.
As everyone knows, Mars is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. But Mars (the god, not the planet), like most of his Roman buddies, nicked his schtick from the Greeks — specifically Ares, the Greek god of war. But the Greeks weren’t any better. Historians are a little vague on this, but the Greeks may have been inspired by the Babylonians, who identified the brilliant fiery planet in the night sky with Nergal — their god of fire, water and all-round destruction.
In fact, Mars has generally been associated with angry war bastards all throughout ancient human culture. In Hinduism, the planet is associated with war god Mangala, while in China, the advent of Mars spelled certain grief, war and/or murder. The ancient Hebrews identified Mars as “Ma’adim” or “the one who blushes”, which is just lovely. Presumably, Mars got off the hook with the ancient Israelites on the basis they already a pretty angry and judgemental war god, God.
But even in the ancient world, nerds such as scientists and natural philosophers were trying to figure out what the hell was going on with the universe in general, and specifically Mars. Plato, the philosophy daddy and creator of such metaphorical locations as Atlantis, put some thought into what was going on — plagiarising ancient Mesopotamian observations no less. Later, his boy Aristotle blew the whole field wide open, by figuring out that Mars was further away than the moon. Boom, game changer.
But Mars being a little guy, cosmically speaking (bigger only than Mercury), and further away than the moon (thanks Aristotle!), it was quite hard to make any observations about the planet’s true nature until the invention of the telescope. The Father of Modern Science, enemy of The Holy See and popular Queen lyric, Galileo Galilei, was the first to observe Mars with the un-naked eye as early as September 1610.
After that, scientists couldn’t stop themselves from taking a peek at the cheeky planet next door, discovering all its vital statistics. It’s distance of 54.3 million km from earth, it’s day lasting slightly longer than earth by just 39 minutes, and the fact it has two moons.
These moons were named, inconsistently, Phobos and Deimos (Fear and Dread) by discoverer Asaph Hall in 1877 after Ares’s sons, rather than Mars’s. The children of Mars are, of course, Romulus and Remus who, after drinking milk from a wolf nipple, would first found Rome and later the Romulan Star Empire.
In that same year, an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli documented what he called “canali” meaning something like “channel”. But at the time, the English speaking world was crazy for canals and assumed Schiaparelli’s canali were man-made, or rather, Martian-made feats of engineering. This theory was fuelled by American astronomer Percival Lowell, who believed that the canals were the last means of irrigating a drying planet by a dying race. Meanwhile, Camille Flammarion, French astronomer, sci-fi pioneer, spiritualist and, we have to assume, Pokemon, thought that Mars’ distinctive red surface was the result of the planet’s surface being covered in red vegetation.
It’s easy to laugh at those old-timey morons for being stupid idiots, but neither of them thought the earth was flat, so give them a break and shut up. Though these theories were even contested at the time, the assumptions they made aren’t entirely mental, given the level of technology and experience available. It was pretty reasonable to jump to the same mistaken conclusions they did, given the evidence they had. In the same way, we once assumed smoking was good for us or that David Duchovny would be able to play a character other than Fox Mulder. We just know better now.
Correct or not (spoilers: it’s not), the theories about the Martian canals kicked off the humanity’s collective imagination, inspiring an explosion of Martian-based science fiction. The much-maligned medium was a magnet for Martian madness over the next 70 years, with the likes of Jules Verne, CS Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs and hundreds of other white nerds throwing their hat into the dusty, red arena.
Of course, the daddy of Red Planet storytelling is non-other than Herbert George Wells, author of The War of the Worlds and the first grown man to get into tabletop wargaming in a big way. Seriously, the dude would have loved 40k.
The War of the Worlds was one of the first alien invasion stories and is so popular it has never been out of print. It has inspired countless comics, films, book, concept albums, theatre productions and urban myths. Famously Wells’s namesake, and history’s sexiest man, Young Orson Welles, produced an updated radio version of The War of The Worlds and terrified America, who believed they were actually being invaded. Only sadly, they didn’t. But it does make for a good story and it’s one of Welles’s greatest recordings, perhaps beaten only by Old Orson Welles getting salty over his role as a pea salesman.
But in the ’60s, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, being killjoys as well as pioneers of human endeavour, launched Mariner 4. The flyby probe (what is it with these guys?) confirmed that the Canali were not Martian-made and that Mars was — much like a teenage birthday party — immensely cratered, with an unwelcoming environment and little atmosphere.
With the Apollo programme getting us to the Moon, sci-fi was booming in the ’60s and ’70s and “Is there life on Mars?” was no longer a prescient question for anybody other than David Bowie. That was until the Viking 1, the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and take pictures of the surface, captured the haunting image of The Face of Mars.
While the image might have been considered the Holy Grail for UFOlogists, it’s actually just a trick of the light and an example of pareidolia — the psychological phenomenon whereby humans are prone to seeing faces where there are none. Still, pretty spooky right?
Mars might have fallen out of favour with our myth makers but NASA remained keen, ever pursuing a relationship with Mars. Mars Pathfinder and its rover Soujorner made it up there in 1997, just to prove to the bastards in Washington that it is viable and worthwhile. Pathfinder cameoed in the 2015 Matt Damon movie The Martian, which inexplicably won the Oscar for Best Comedy/Musical without being a comedy or musical. Bow before the confusing power of Mars!
Twinsies Spirit and Opportunity followed Pathfinder in 2003, paving the way for everybody’s favourite, Curiosity.
Launched by the Mars Science Laboratory in 2012, Curiosity was initially supposed to be on a two-year mission to assess the environment of Mars checking for water, microbial life and the potential for human colonisation but, thanks to Curiosity’s success, and let’s face it, Wall-E levels of endearing charm, its mission has been extended indefinitely while Curiosity’s design will serve as the basis for the Mars 2020 rover.
We are not yet sure if Mars 2020, like it’s cool, older brother Curiosity, will play Happy Birthday to itself or take dope-ass, magic selfies but its key mission objective is to help pave the way for the Mars sample-return mission. These samples, which will surely be named Mars Bars, will allow us to analyse Mars’ geography more thoroughly and, fingers crossed, allow us earthlings to always have a little piece of Mars with us.
Though Earth and Mars have a lot in common, we’re not sure whether it’s going to work out quite yet. Mars has no liquid water on its surface, which complicates things for us. But deep down, there is a small potential that Mars has some extant or dormant life beneath its cold, unloving exterior.
It may be that while we’re into the idea of getting on Mars, our little ginger companion in the vast, empty void of space has swiped left on us, leaving us alone and desperate in an uncaring universe. Or, as with everything else worth doing, it may just require patience, hard work and understanding. Either way, come touchdown, a clearer picture of our future with the Red Planet will be… InSight.
Richard Worth 26th November 2018