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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. Fear of Martian invasion has been in society 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. His work spawned many science fiction books and movies, such as H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Eventually, we sent spacecraft to investigate the Red Planet.

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 detailed 3-dimensional map of the planet. Unfortunately, the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander has been a big setback in our research.

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

Christian Huygens was a Dutch physicist and astronomer who lived between 1629-1695. He found new methods for grinding and polishing lenses, making telescopes more powerful. Using a telescope he had made,...more

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

Viking

The Viking missions to Mars were part of a series of U.S. efforts to explore and better understand the red planet. Each Viking spacecraft consisted of an orbiter and lander. The landers were sterilized...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 designed to be a study of Martian climate, weather, and surface properties at the Martian south pole. Mars '98 was supposed to build upon the discoveries of the Mars Pathfinder...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF