Mars: Dreams, Predictions, and Reality

Svetlana Zernes

© Copyright 2018 by Svetlana Zernes


Photo of a crater on Marz.  Credit to NASA.

For centuries, people created their ideas and visions about Mars. Some predictions finally came true, even more did not. Let’s take a look at the accuracy of famous (and infamous) historical ideas about the Red Planet.

The moons of Mars

The existence of two Martian moons was predicted around 1610 by Johannes Kepler. His prediction wasn’t based on sound scientific principles, but his ideas were so influential that the two moons were discussed in works of fiction. Jonathan Swift referred to the two moons in his Gulliver’s Travels (1726) where astronomers in a fictional kingdom called Laputa are described as having discovered two Martian moons orbiting at distances of three and five Martian diameters, with orbital periods of 10 and 21.5 hours.

Two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, were discovered by Asaph Hall in 1877. The actual orbital distances and periods of Phobos and Deimos are respectively 1.4 and 3.5 Martian diameters and 7.6 and 30.3 hours.

Martian canals

In the late 19th Century, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed apparent linear features covering Mars like a net. He called them “canali” (Italian: “channels”). Fascinated by this, the US businessman Percival Lowell built an observatory and started studying these “canals”, convinced that they were built by Martians to irrigate the planet’s deserts. Faith in this Martian civilization was so huge that Lowell’s canal-strewn map of Mars was accepted by many scientists and the general public.

In 1964 NASA’s Mariner 4 returned images of a lifeless desert landscape that was completely devoid of “canals”, ending the controversy. Still, the Martian “canals” is one of the most embarrassing episodes in astronomical history.

Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris (Latin for Mariner Valleys), the “Grand Canyon on Mars,” is actually a large system of canyons that was originally considered as a part of Martian Canals.

After the “canals” idea was denied, there have been many hypotheses about what formed Valles Marineris: water, magma, or carbon dioxide glaciers? Today, scientists suppose that the canyon system was formed mostly by rifting of crust as it got stretched.

The “face” on Mars

A strange-looking humanoid “face” was identified in images of the Cydonia region returned by NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft in 1976. Could the “face” have been constructed in the remote past by a Martian civilization?

By combining high-resolution images from ESA’s Mars Express probe and NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, it has been possible to create a three-dimensional representation of the “face”. Clearly, the simulacrum was produced by the play of light and shadows on a small Martian hill—simply an optical illusion.

The same situation occurred with the “Inca City”, a set of intersecting, rectilinear ridges in the south polar region of Mars that superficially looks artificial. Most investigators think they are sand dunes, while others consider them to have been formed by injection of magma into subsurface cracks that subsequently hardened and were then exposed at the surface and subjected to wind erosion.

Water on Mars

Water indicates life, so the search for water on Mars is inextricably linked to the search for life. In 2008, the NASA’s Phoenix lander’s “selfie” showed drops of liquid water clinging to its titanium legs. This gave hope to the existence of liquid water in the top layers of the Martian soil.

With the exception of the lowest elevations (and then, just for a few hours) the low atmospheric pressure and temperature rules out the existence of liquid water in a stable form at the Martian surface. Phoenix’s observations separates scientists into two groups: the salt water with perchlorates theory and the ice sublimation theory. Both are pretty right, although almost all water on Mars exists as ice. Now, there are ambitious projects intended to release water from the ice polar caps by melting them with orbital mirrors, or solar sails, probably able to reflect solar energy and redirect it down to the polar areas.

Terrestrial life came from Mars

Could life on Earth have started on Mars, arriving at our planet on meteorites blasted from the Martian surface? One argument is that the oxidized mineral form of molybdenum, which may have been crucial to the origin of life, could only have been available on the surface of Mars and not on Earth at the time life first began.

Prof. Steven Benner (Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology) supposes that the surface of Earth had very little molybdenum and boron—elements that seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar (the “tar paradox”)—but Mars did. In addition, it’s suggested that life would have struggled to start on the early Earth because it was totally covered by water, which is corrosive to the important life-molecule RNA (the “water paradox”. Water on Mars covered
much smaller areas than on early Earth. This seems to be building up to the idea that we are actually all Martians!


Terraforming is the idea of modifying a planet’s atmosphere, temperature, etc. to make it Earth-like and human-friendly. The term was suggested by the sci-fi writer Jack Williamson. “Space developers” from Inspiration Mars Foundation have already chosen a place—Candor Chasma in Valles Marineris—to implement their plan for building the habitat using local materials. This called the Mars Homestead Project.

Such a project would be extremely bold owing to the number of variables involved in terraforming the Martian environment. The start, according to the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s estimations, will be possible no earlier than 2150. So stay tuned! However, besides the technical side, there are major legal and ethical problems associated with possible Mars colonization. Scientists ask if it is really ethical to do this to any planet, because this can be a one-way process of destroying it forever.

Svetlana Zernes is a technical editor from Atlanta, GA, born and raised in Russia. She earned her Master’s degree in engineering in Europe and then studied online at Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of expertise include technology, innovation, research and engineering ethics, history of science, and futurology.

Contact Svetlana

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher