Like politicians and NFL quarterbacks, the planet Mars is constantly changing its image. It’s gone from a symbol of war to one of exploration; from a dry, dull world to one with lots of water and activity; and from the home of a dying civilization to the possible home of microbes.
This planetary spin artist is close to the upper left of the Moon as they climb into view after midnight, and looks like a bright orange star.
That orange color earned Mars its first identity. The color looked like blood, so the planet was named for the god of war.
A couple of millennia later, as astronomers looked at Mars through big telescopes, they saw markings that looked like fields of vegetation — and others that looked like long canals. According to one astronomer, the canals brought water from the polar ice caps to sustain a dying civilization on a desert planet.
The idea of a desert was driven home by the first spacecraft to fly past Mars. They saw no canals or life — only a Moon-like surface of impact craters and volcanic plains.
Since then, however, more sophisticated craft have painted a more nuanced picture of Mars. It’s a world with water in its ice caps, its atmosphere, and its dirt. It’s a world where flowing water once carved great canyons. And it’s a world where microscopic life might survive even today.
Eventually, people may visit Mars, learning much more about our neighbor world — knowledge that may help reshape Mars’s image yet again.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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