The Universe: Mars the Red Planet

Today on Discovery Enterprise we present episode two from the first season of the highly acclaimed documentary series “The Universe” which has been airing on the History Channel for the past five seasons.

The focus of this documentary is the fourth planet in distance from the Sun, the Red Planet – Mars.


Humanity has had an enduring love affair with this planet for the past one hundred and fifty years ever since the Italian Astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli set into motion a series of events which galvanised people’s attention on that distant world.

In 1877, during the “Great Opposition”, when Mars was closest to Earth, he announced that he observed a dense network of linear structures on the surface of Mars which he called “canali” which in Italian, means “channels” but which was mistranslated into “canals” in the English language.

While the latter term indicates an artificial construction, the former has the connotation that it can also be a natural configuration of the land. From this incorrect translation, various assumptions about life on Mars erupted like mushrooms overnight, as the “canals” of Mars soon became famous and gripped the popular imagination, giving rise to waves of speculation and folklore about the possibility of life and sentience on the distant red planet.

Among the most fervent supporters of the artificial canals was the famous American astronomer Percival Lowell who spent much of his life trying to prove the existence of intelligent life on the red planet.

Lowell theorized that an advanced but desperate civilization had built the canals to tap Mars’ polar ice caps, in a frantic bid to save their inexorably drying planet.

This was to was to bring forth the romanticised vision of Mars of as revealed by the pens of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein which culminated with humanity’s exploration of space and a vigorous program of robotic exploration of the planet Mars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This enduring love affair continues unabated. It has been fifty years since humanity first took its first tentative steps out into the cosmic ocean of space, but Mars’ greatest secrets have yet to be revealed. In fact it is one of the stated goals of the current administration in Washington and within NASA to by pass any attempt to return humans to the Moon and venture headlong towards the red planet.

This may indeed prove to be a fool hardy policy. Yet, Mars does have its enticing allure.

Mars is indeed the one world in our solar system most similar to Earth. Mars is currently a world griped in a perpetual ice age, but this was not always the case. The surface of Mars as revealed by our orbital reconnaissance spacecraft shows us that Mars was once a warm, wet world flushed with the promise of life.

Yet, if Mars was once a potential abode of life in the past, what major calamity so drastically transformed its environment into the dry and fridge world we see today?

Rumours of existent and past life on Mars have yet to be substantiated as NASA’s orbiters and rovers discover new evidence of frozen water just beneath the rust red soil. Did alien life exist there in the past? Does it exist there today?

These are just a few of the questions we hope to answer during the course of our explorations of that world.

Now, as our world and civilization struggles with the effects of global warming and environmental degradation, we look forward to the possibility that Mars may one day become a second home for humanity.

Can humankind one day take life to Mars and bring Mars to life? In other words can Mars be terraformed?

Perhaps with some ingenuity humankind can take what it learned from its current and inadvertent geochemical experiment, that is steadily and adversely altering our planet’s climate, and use these same lessons in a deliberate attempt to transform the red planet into a green and blue orb that may one day become an abode for terrestrial life and consciousness.

The Universe: Mars the Red Planet

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