Mars, the Red Planet, is a desolate world, and it is completely unsuited to human habitation at the present time (see Figure 6.1). Yet, while incapable of sustaining human life, it is a planet that has provided humanity with a rich and fertile muse for the imagination.
Johannes Kepler (see Vignette C at the end of Chapter 5) often wrote of his war with Mars, and indeed, he spent many years of his life studying the observations of the planet gathered by Tycho Brahe, the noble Dane, and his assistants. Kepler knew that if he could only understand the motion of Mars then he could unravel the true workings of the Sun-centered Copernican theory, and
M. Beech, Terraforming, Astronomers' Universe 125
DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-09796-1_6, © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009
accordingly his three famous laws of planetary motion have their origins in his detailed study of the Red Planet's motion.
Kepler's battle with Mars was won in1605, when he finally realized that the orbit of the planet was elliptical and that it moved about the Sun, sweeping out equal areas in equal intervals of time. These first two laws of planetary motion were described by Kepler in his Astronomia Nova (literally, The New Astronomy) published in 1609, and although astronomers were suspicious for many decades of his second and third laws [the latter presented as the eighth item in a list of 13 planetary attributes in his Hamoni Mundi (The Harmony of the World) published in 1618] these, too, were eventually explained as natural laws by the great Isaac Newton with the publication of his Pricipia Mathematica Naturalis in 1687.
Some two centuries after Kepler, in 1820, the ''prince of mathematicians,'' Karl Friedrich Gauss, suggested that a signal of humanity's intelligence might be sent to Mars by cutting a massive Pythagorean triangle into the forests of Siberia. He also reasoned that by growing giant square-shaped fields of wheat along each side of the triangle for contrast, the message would be easily visible to alien telescopes. Any observant Martian would then know, albeit several thousand years after the fact, that humanity had at least discovered the rule that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of a right-angles triangle.
In 1898, some 80 years after Gauss suggested that we send a sign of our mathematical prowess to the Martians, writer Herbert George Wells cast our erstwhile neighbors in a more menacing light with the publication of his The War of the Worlds. The story begins with an apparent straightforward statement of fact: ''No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own,'' and everyone who read this opening paragraph knew that it carried the ring of truth. Indeed, the same story, broadcast by radio under the directorship of Orson Welles in 1938, could frighten an all-too-gullible public into believing that a real Martian invasion was actually taking place.
Mars—it grips us and pulls at our imagination. History, for so it seems, suggests that humanity has long believed that it would travel there, one day, to settle and to prosper. That day, incredibly, is nearly upon us. Indeed, it does not overstretch the limits of credibility to suggest that there are people alive today that might actually walk on the surface of Mars. Even if the current generation of human beings doesn't make it to Mars, then the next generation surely will. Not only is the possibility of this remarkable journey in sight, but also the first humans to explore Mars will probably know and recognize as familiar much of what will surround them.
Although some 38 spacecraft missions have set out for planet Mars since 1960, less than 50% of them have achieved their mission objectives. Although the Red Planet has not yielded up its secrets without great hardship, in recent decades a number of highly successful missions have mapped its surface in exquisite detail, studied its surface composition, measured and probed its atmosphere, and moved upon its surface to ''sniff,'' grind, and analyze its rocks. Its subsurface layers have been scanned with ground-penetrating radar, and skittering whirlwinds have been captured in time-lapse video sequences to dance, ghost-like, across its open plains. Mars is both familiar and distant, comfortingly like Earth in some aspects and yet grandiose and overwhelming in others. In many ways, Mars is a Frankenstein world: some parts we can recognize, but other parts are alien to us. Indeed, they are very much Martian.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers deployed so successfully by NASA in January of 2004 have returned incredible and yet disconcerting images of the Martian panorama (Figure 6.2). The pictures
look as though we could literally walk into them, and that once within we might expect to find desert plants, scuttling insects, and myriad exotic birds swooping through the pinkish Martian sky. Yet in reality, the ground is barren, maybe even totally lifeless (but check out Vignette B at the end of Chapter 4 in this book), and the sky is devoid of any animate motion.
The Mars we see by spacecraft proxy today runs counter to our expectations, but 3 billion years ago it was an entirely different place. Let us piece together the past and present Mars in anticipation of what our terraforming descendants might make of its future.
Was this article helpful?