The Many Lives of Mars

A certain mystique has historically surrounded Mars. As men of science and (more modern-day) astronomers and planetary scientists have learned more about the solar system, Mars is the one planet that has remained in the spotlight – central to visions of man’s future on other worlds and the likeliest candidate for extraterrestrial life, be it primitive or extinct.

As I read more about the argument for men in space, I find I am unable to separate the Victorian and early 20th century arguments for life on Mars from the modern day drives behind a manned mission to the Red Planet. I am constantly hit with the feeling that rather than building mission profiles around what we know about the planet, there is almost a need to cling to the lore surrounding Mars, that the future of the planet is based largely on historical guesswork.

At the risk of sounding trite, that there are other planets in the vicinity of Earth has been known for millennia. Larger bodies in the sky that moved against the background of the so-called (and seemingly) fixed stars were separated out as different types of heavenly bodies. In the Renaissance, new information was amassed concerning these bodies when Copernicus de-centered the Earth and Galileo turned his telescope skyward and began observing planetary features.

Mars took centre stage with the debate for life on other planets that arose in earnest in the mid 19th century. In 1854, English scientist and astronomer William Whewell published On the Plurality of Worlds in which he argued against life on other planets. Just because there is no evidence against extraterrestrial life, he argued, doesn’t mean that there is extraterrestrial life. In response, Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster published Other Worlds Than Ours which compiled arguments and evidence for the potential of life on other worlds in our solar system.

Brewster’s argument in favour of life on Mars centres around its apparent similarity to Earth. Both planets have an atmosphere, equivalent diurnal cycles, and are roughly in the same habitable zone in the solar system – the heat from the sun is not too hot and not too cold and thus able to promote life. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of his theory is that Mars, being farther from the sun than Earth, is in a more advanced state of development. The current state of Mars is what we can expect the Earth to become if left to its own devices.

This idea of Mars as a “more advanced” Earth was strengthened as astronomers turned increasingly powerful telescopes to the Red Planet. Surface features were revealed which were made to fit into this “aged planet” mold. Darker areas at the poles were thought to be water or ice, and darker lines crossing the body of the planet appeared to connect the poles and break the planet into sections.

Taking advantage of the periodic closeness between Earth and Mars in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed and recorded the lines on the Martian surface. He called them “canali” or channels in English. He had given the planet natural Earthly features. Schiaparelli’s findings were taken up by American astronomer Pervical Lowell in the early 20th century with one significant mistranslation: Lowell took Schiaparelli’s “canali” to mean canals as in the man-made irrigation structure.

This fueled the fire of Lowell’s argument for life on Mars. It was obvious, he thought, that an ancient civilization on Mars had worked as a global unit to build the canals as a means of bringing the liquid water from the poles to the centre of the planet. He additionally took up the hypothesis that Mars was further along in its development than Earth, explaining that this peaceful, problem-solving people had long since died away. The canals were the last vestiges of Martian civilization.

Modern takes on Mars align somewhat closely with this now century-old hypothesis to suggest that we as human can force Mars to change into a thriving planet, be it a return to a former glory or a new life as a life-supporting planet, through terraforming. Most notably astronomer Carl Sagan is a firm believer in terraforming Mars as a means to create an outpost for humans survival and exploration in the solar system.

I am inclined to think that no good can come from an attempt at terraforming Mars. My own lack of conviction on the continuation of manned spaceflight aside, I can’t see much real benefit in turning Mars into a “second Earth”. I feel quite strongly that if intelligent life hasn’t yet arisen on Mars of its own accord, we shouldn’t force it, and the planet is best left to its own devices. Polluting the planet with rovers and other unmanned probes is plenty – we ought not destroy the natural environment of another world. Furthermore, who is to say we as humanity won’t destroy the atmosphere and environment we create on Mars the way we are slowly destroying the one we already have on Earth? Have we learned enough to safely build a new world to live on? And if we have, why don’t we apply such brilliant solutions to preserving Earth?

It seems flighty to suggest moving to a new planet in lieu of focussing the necessary efforts on solving the problems of our own. And how can we be sure it would work? Are we putting too much stock in historical conceptions of Mars? If the idea of an ancient civilization bringing water from the poles to the centre of the planet had never found a resting place among astronomers, would we even be thinking about making such a system a reality on Mars?


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