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Looking for Canals

August 3, 2017

Mars is hidden from view right now. It’s looping behind the Sun, so it’s lost in the Sun’s glare. It will return to view in late September, in the dawn sky.

But 125 years ago this month, it was a different story. Mars was putting on a brilliant show as it passed just 35 million miles from Earth — an especially close encounter. And astronomers took advantage of the alignment to study the Red Planet in detail.

In particular, many of them were trying to see the famous “canals” reported 15 years earlier by Giovanni Schiaparelli. The Italian astronomer had drawn a map of Mars that showed an entire network of straight lines crisscrossing the surface. Schiaparelli opined that they were river channels carved as Mars evolved. But others thought they were artificial features — irrigation canals dug to carry water to a dying civilization.

Photography wasn’t good enough in 1892 to take sharp pictures of the planet. So the astronomers had to sketch what they saw through their telescopes. Some of them confirmed the canals, although many others did not.

One confirmation came from Peru, where William Pickering was operating a mountaintop observatory for Harvard College. He saw many amazing sights on Mars, such as lakes and fresh snowfalls on mountaintops. He reported those findings in dispatches to the New York Herald — reports that caused a worldwide sensation, but didn’t do Pickering’s career any good at all. We’ll have more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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