Two hundred years ago, French amateur astronomer HonorÃ© Flaugergues saw something moving on Mars -- reddish "patches" above the planet's surface.
From this matter-of-fact 1809 observation grew the nineteenth-century idea of a Mars that was much like Earth -- a planet with an atmosphere, clouds, and perhaps storms. And it fed speculation that the planet might even be inhabited.
By the end of the century, such speculation was the work not only of such authors as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but of professional astronomers as well.
In fact, you can trace the influence of Flaugergues all the way to Percival Lowell in the twentieth century. Lowell was the American astronomer who thought he could make out a vast system of canals on the Red Planet, supposedly built by Martians.
There's just one problem with Flaugergues's story: his telescope probably was too modest to reveal cloud features of the kind he described. Was his "discovery" merely the effect of wishful thinking, as Lowell's canals turned out to be?
Perhaps so. Yet today, images of Mars clearly show giant dust storms occasionally raging across the planet. Unlike the canals, blowing clouds do exist -- even as it appears unlikely that Flaugergues spotted them. He might have seen something other than clouds -- or perhaps his eyes were just playing tricks on him. Mars remains silent on this and many other mysteries.
We'll have more about Mars tomorrow.
Script by Thomas Hockey, Copyright 2009
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