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Discovery of Mars

Mars is much like Venus-- it's very bright and therefore easily spotted in the night sky. Because of this, we don't know who exactly discovered Mars. We do know it was named after the Roman god of war, because its reddish color reminded people of blood.

In 1659, Christian Huygens discovered a strange feature on the surface of the Red Planet. It was later called the Syrtis Major. We have been scared of Martians ever since. In 1802, one scientist was so convinced there was life on Mars that he wanted to draw huge figures in the snow to signal the Martians!

In 1877, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered what he believed to be several lines crossing one another. He claimed they were water canals made by intelligent creatures.

In 1971, Mariner 9 visited Mars and sent back images of enormous volcanoes and vast canyons. It discovered Olympus Mons, now the most famous volcano not on Earth. This massive volcano could cover the state of Missouri, and reaches 15 miles above the surface! Mariner 9 also found evidence that water once flowed on Mars. However, there were no sightings of Schiaparelli's famous canals.

In 1975, two spacecraft named Viking I and II landed on Mars to study its surface. They analyzed the rocks and soil of the planet while providing us with information about its atmosphere and weather patterns. Even today we are exploring Mars. The Mars Global Surveyor made a map of the planet in 1997.

Although Mars was never really discovered, its moons were! In 1877, astronomer Asaph Hall spotted the two moons and named them Phobos, which means fear, and Deimos, which means panic. They were named after the mythical horses that drew the chariot of the Roman god, Mars.

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Christian Huygens

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Giovanni Schiaparelli

Gioavanni Schiaparelli was an Italian astronomer who lived between 1835-1910. He observed patterned straight lines on the surface of Mars, and called them "canali", Italian for channels. Unfortunately,...more


The Viking missions to Mars were part of a series of U.S. efforts to explore and better understand the red planet. Each spacecraft consisted of an orbiter and lander. The landers were sterilized before...more

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The uniquely red global surface of Mars is marked by many interesting features - some like those on the Earth and others strangely different. The reddish color is caused by rust (iron oxide) in the soil....more

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The Mars '98 mission was supposed to study the climate, weather, and surface at the Martian south pole. Mars '98 was to build upon the discoveries of the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA