Of “Canali” and “Canals”

At least since Giovanni Schiaparelli peered through his telescope, in 1877, and declared that he had observed canali crisscrossing Mars, humans have been fascinated by the possibility that life exists on our neighboring planet.  Had canali been properly translated into English as “channels,” perhaps the interest would have been somewhat tempered; but the noun became “canals,” and imaginations were awash in speculation and fantasy.

In August 1911, the New York Times trumpeted Martian canal-building feats.

“The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut.” – Percival Lowell

Eminent astronomer Percival Lowell was inspired by Schiaparelli’s “discovery” to conjecture in Mars and Its Canals (1906) and other books that the waterways were mostly composed of vegetation that was nurtured by a vast, planet-wide irrigation system.  Such a complex system for agriculture obviously implied the presence of civilization, so it was natural to consider whether one day we might pay the Martians a visit – or to contemplate them traveling to us for a friendly exchange of ideas, or with rather more hostile intentions as in H.G. Wells’s 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.

The War of the Worlds predicted a Martian invasion of Earth that, for some reason, never happened. (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Back to Reality

Astoundingly, despite decades of mounting evidence to the contrary, it wasn’t until the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars and sent back a modest package of 22 images, in 1965, that the fantasized existence of a Martian civilization was finally put to rest once and for all.  If life exists on Mars, it will be much simpler than the “little green men” of science fiction, and humans (or their surrogate robots) will have to go there to find it.

Mariner 4 composite image of Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Much of the information trove is released to the public, and we pour over the pictures and stories in the media with levels of interest ranging from casual to passionate fixation.  For some observers, it’s as if Mars were sending a stream of invitations for us to visit and finally, with impatience and exasperation, is flashing a sign saying, “Hurry up please.  It’s time.”

Mt. Sharp rises near the Gale Crater on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Is it, indeed, time?  Many think that, at the very least, it’s almost time – and let’s get on with it.  Pundits, politicians, administrators, entrepreneurs, and scientists extol the prospects for sending the first crew of human explorers to Mars within the next 20 years.  Some even promote extraordinarily complex and costly proto-plans to colonize the planet eventually as Homo sapiens evolves – by choice or necessity – into a multi-planet species.

“We need to go to Mars eventually and it has to be a priority for us. It’s not going to be cheap but I think we need to start down that path.” – Rick Mastracchio, NASA Astronaut

The Race Is On

NASA, for its part, has embarked on planning for a mission to land astronauts on the Martian surface (and to bring them back safely) sometime in the 2030s.  Elon Musk, the visionary founder of SpaceX, believes he can get people there sooner, perhaps as early as 2025, using the Mars Colonial Transporter system that is in development.  And for those whose passion for getting to Mars outweighs their instinct to, uh, “live long and prosper,” there’s the Mars One project that hopes to launch a four-person crew on a one-way, sink-or-swim mission to the planet by 2024.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover recorded this sequence of views of the sun setting at the close of the mission's 956th Martian day, or sol (April 15, 2015), from the rover's location in Gale Crater. The four images shown in sequence here were taken over a span of 6 minutes, 51 seconds. This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity. The images come from the left-eye camera of the rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam). The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Mastcam sees color very similarly to what human eyes see, although it is actually a little less sensitive to blue than people are. Dust in the Martian atmosphere has fine particles that permit blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than longer-wavelength colors. That causes the blue colors in the mixed light coming from the sun to stay closer to sun's part of the sky, compared to the wider scattering of yellow and red colors. The effect is most pronounced near sunset, when light from the sun passes through a longer path in the atmosphere than it does at mid-day. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the rover's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. For more information about Curiosity, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover recorded this sequence of views of the sun setting at the close of the mission’s 956th Martian day, or sol (April 15, 2015), from the rover’s location in Gale Crater. The four images shown in sequence here were taken over a span of 6 minutes, 51 seconds. Notice how small the sun looks! (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.)

No doubt, there will be more plans announced by other governments or privately organized ventures.  One or more of them will eventually succeed, although there might be spectacular – even tragic – failures along way.  It is sobering to note that of the 43 Mars missions that have been launched since 1960, 26 have ended in only partial success or outright failure.

“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.” – U.S. President Barack Obama

However long it takes, and whoever wins the race, the first landing of human explorers on Mars will be both momentous and humbling.  Finally, we will have realized one of humankind’s greatest dreams, but the achievement will be only an incremental step toward establishing a permanently habitable colony on another world.  Much work will remain to be done.  Let’s get on with it.