Mars: Past, Present, Future
My research project is about the planet Mars. In my project you will learn what we knew and believed in the past and in the present, and then I will explain what might happen in the near future. Will there be a manned mission to Mars? Is there evidence that there is life on Mars? I will also include what fascinates me about this topic. You probably know that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. You might even know that NASA is running many tests and observing Mars very closely, but did you know that the Babylonians first observed Mars as early as 400 B.C.?
We knew very little about Mars in the 1900s, compared to what we know today. Many astronomers observed Mars through telescopes. Each astronomer had a theory, or belief about Mars. Many of these theories were incorrect. Take a look at some of the information we knew, believed, and "thought we knew" in 1900.
In 1887, Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered dried riverbeds, using an 81/2-inch telescope at the Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy. He called his discovery canali, the Italian word for canals and channels. Percival Lowell, an American astronomer, viewed the canals in the early 1900s. He believed the canals were made by Martian life to bring water from the polar ice caps to the equator where they lived. The late 1800s and early 1900s are known for this "canal craze." In 1900, we knew about the dried riverbeds or canals. We hadn't been to Mars yet so we didn't know what the Martian landscape looked like. Astronomers didn't know that the canals were dry; some thought they were filled with water.
Another theory was that the color contrasts on the Martian surface were great oceans. Some astronomers believed the oceans were filled with fishlike animals. Other astronomers, including Percival Lowell, believed the color contrast was vegetation. Today we know the color contrasts are huge dust storms rolling across the planet.
There was some speculation between astronomers whether there was or wasn't water vapor on the planet. W. W. Campbell, then-director of the Lick Observatory in California, said he had detected water vapor. Many astronomers disagreed with him. Another theory was that the atmosphere was full of oxygen, like on Earth. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of theories and beliefs. The next century's discoveries would prove them right or wrong.
The time between 1900 and 2000 was one of trial and error. If we made a mistake we would learn from it and try to solve it the next time around. The following information outlines facts we learned between 1900 and 2000. I have also included some information we now believe about the Red Planet.
In 1938, a radio station broadcasted a novel called The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. The story tells how Martians come to Earth to try to take over because they had run out of things they needed on their planet. The broadcast caused many people in the United States to panic. The reading made many people think that Martians were taking over the world. This shows that in 1938 some humans believed it possible for Martians to exist and come to Earth.
In the 1950s little was done about Mars observation due to the beginning of the "moon race" between the United States and the former Soviet Union. In the 1960s, we began to reach toward Mars. The main question about Mars was whether life existed on the planet. We still ask the same question today. Missions in the 1960s and 1970s included soil samples and mapping the planet. In 1976, Viking 1 became the first vehicle to land on the planet. This was a huge accomplishment in Mars exploration. Viking 1 took soil samples to look for any evidence of life. They found none, but it was a huge success anyway because it beamed back pictures of the Martian surface.
In 1975, the tallest mountain in the solar system was discovered on Mars. It was named Olympus Mons. It is a shield volcano that reaches 15.5 miles high.
In the 1980s, the United States didn't send any orbiters or landers to Mars.
The 1990s were a productive time for Mars exploration. Many trips to Mars resulted in new information. One very successful mission was the Mars Pathfinder, only the third vehicle to land on Mars. It sent back panoramic images of the Martian surface and also took soil samples.
In 1996, a very interesting discovery was made on a meteorite that was found in 1984. Astronomers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) believed they found evidence of life on the meteorite. They said that there was microscopic waste in the crevasses of the meteorite. Scientists said that this could be evidence of ancient life on Mars. Along with the good in the 1990s there was some bad. In 1999, NASA made some very costly mistakes. Recently, the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into Mars. Also in 1999, the Mars Polar Lander was declared lost after NASA tried several times to make contact with it after its [projected] landing on the Martian surface. We have to remember that we learn from our mistakes.
In 2000, we know about the geography, atmosphere, and climate of the Red Planet. I think the twentieth century was very successful in learning new information about Mars.
During the current century, I think a lot will happen. I believe that in the next 30 years we will have sent humans to Mars. At the end of the century we might even see people living on the Red Planet! Here are some events already planned for the twenty-first century:
In 2003 and 2005, NASA is planning two sample return missions. In 2003, one lander will be launched and land on Mars. It will drill into the planet and gather several different samples. After gathering samples, the rocks will be placed in a "small chamber" and launched into orbit to wait for retrieval. In 2005, an identical lander will be launched and land in a different region of the planet. It will also collect samples. It will be launched into orbit in a different chamber; a French orbiter will then retrieve the two chambers and bring them back to Earth. This mission should be completed by the year 2008.
NASA is planning a manned mission to Mars around 2010. The mission will take a series of stages, and will include the astronauts having to stay on Mars for 16 to 18 months to make new fuel for the journey home.
One thing that might be done in the next century is terraforming. Terraforming is when scientists change the temperature and atmosphere of a planet to allow life to exist on it. This is a long process that would take many years. Terraforming is another option for living on Mars.
What will we believe in the next century? It is hard to know because we do not know how much we will have learned. Maybe we will think there is life underground or maybe we will think there is life on one of Mars's moons. Whatever we believe, the next century is bound to be very successful.
WHAT FASCINATES ME ABOUT THIS TOPIC
Why are people so interested in a barren planet? We are probably interested in Mars because we are curious about what has happened on the planet. We want to know everything we can about our neighbor. Maybe one day we will need to live there.
Before I did this project, I think the thing that fascinated me the most was the study of life on Mars. After doing this project, the thing that fascinates me the most is the amount we have accomplished in the last century, and the plans for the new century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, we had only viewed Mars through telescopes; now we use computers to take orbiters and landers there. I think it is amazing we can learn this much through computers and other technology about a place that is so far away.
I have learned a lot about the planet Mars while doing this project. It was very interesting to see how much we have learned and what we might know in 2100. I think that if we keep going at this rate, we will be living on Mars by 2100.
Exploring Mars: History [Web site no longer active]
Henbest, Nigel. The Planets. Great Britain: Viking, 1992.
Karon, Tony. "Whoops! A Wrong Turn--and a Spacecraft is MIA" Time Daily, (September 23 1999). http://www.time.com/time/daily/0,2960,31381,00.html
Life on Mars. Videocassette. Finely-Holiday Film Corp., 1996. 59 min.
National Space Science Data Center, NASA, "A Crewed Mission to Mars." http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/mars/marsretu.html
Newcott, William R. "Return to Mars." National Geographic, August 1998: 2-29.
Slipher, E.C. Lowell. "Our Knowledge of the Planet Mars." Scientific American, October 17, 1914: 317-318.
Stott, Carole, and Clint Twist. Space Facts. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1995.
Very, F. W. "Water Vapor on Mars." Nature, October 20, 1910: 495.
Wells, H. G. War of the Worlds. United States of America: Watermill Press, 1980.
More About This Resource...
This winning entry in the museum's Young Naturalist Awards 2000 takes a look at Mars. Andrew's narrative essay covers:
- astronomers' beliefs about Mars in the early 1900s
- how research over the next century lead to what we know now about the Red Planet
- the more than 30 Mars exploration trips conducted by the Soviet Union, U.S., and Japan
- his predictions about what Mars discoveries the next 30 years will bring
Less than 1 period
Supplement a study of astronomy with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Send students to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Have them write a brief essay that explains their predictions about what new discoveries will be made in the next 30 years.
OriginYoung Naturalist Awards