Mars, the Red Planet. Our cosmic planetary neighbour. In February 2021, UAE joined an elite group of countries who have successfully reached Mars, India having achieved this feat in 2014. Sending a probe to Mars is one of the brightest feathers in the cap of any space agency.
No other planet has captured the imagination of humanity like Mars has, and none probably will, at least for a very long time. When one looks at it objectively, it can actually be hard to imagine why that is the case. Neither is it the closest planet to Earth (Venus gets closest to Earth, and on an average it is Mercury that is closest to Earth), nor is it extremely interesting to look at, nor does it have conditions suitable for life. For starters, its average temperature is -60 degrees celsius. Its atmosphere is so thin that a human’s blood would boil if they stand on the Martian surface without a protective suit. It does not contain any appreciable amount of water, except what is frozen at its poles.
Why then, has humanity attempted to send missions to Mars a whopping 49 times?
An analysis shows that Mars is by far the most explored planet of the Solar System, well apart from our own planet Earth of course. Considering how expensive interplanetary missions are, why are we pumping this amount into Mars exploration?
The reasons are several, but one of the very first would have to be the long-debunked idea that Mars is home to aliens. In the 1800s, observatories with larger and larger telescopes were built around the world. In 1877, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, began mapping and naming areas on Mars. He named the Martian “seas” and “continents” (dark and light areas) with names from historic and mythological sources. He saw channels on Mars and called them “canali.” Canali means channels, but it was mistranslated into “canals” implying intelligent life on Mars. Because of the then recent completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 (the engineering wonder of the era), the misinterpretation was taken to mean that large-scale artificial structures had been discovered on Mars. This myth was later debunked, and it was realized that these observations were due to human tendency of finding patterns where none exist.
The notion of bright red Martians landing on and invading Earth is the content of several sci-fi flicks of the 20th century, the beginning of which was HG Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ in 1898. In 1938, a radio broadcast of the novel was presented as a series of news bulletins, which led to panic as people mistook them for actual news of a Martian attack.
In 1965, Mariner 4 performed a flyby of Mars, leading humanity to witness close-up images of the red planet for the very first time. However, the data of the probe made it clear that Mars was inhospitable; it has very low atmospheric pressure and temperature.
Somehow though, it is this early interest in Mars that led to more missions being sent to the planet, and led us to study its atmosphere and surface features in great detail. Modern interest in the planet stems from the fact that Mars could have been hospitable to live millions of years ago, and it is a mystery how Mars lost most of its atmosphere and water. There is evidence of river canyons, channels and gullies all over the surface, indicating possible liquid water flow. Subsequent missions have found water under the Martian surface, as well as several sedimentary rock formations which strongly indicate that the surface of the now-barren planet was once covered with water.
The final and the most recent reason for humanity’s deep interest in Mars is the exciting possibility of the red planet being humanity’s second home. Colonization of Mars is being seriously considered. Mars has enough gravity to be adaptable for human bodies. Reasons for colonizing Mars include pure curiosity, the potential for humans to conduct more in-depth observational research than unmanned rovers, economic interest in its resources, and the possibility that the settlement on other planets could decrease the likelihood of human extinction. Perhaps, sending a human to Mars will be the next big achievement of our species, and one that might even happen in our lifetimes. Until then, we wave hello to Mars right here from Earth!
– Udbhav Sinha