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Knowledge of Mars has steadily increased with improvements in telescope resolution

The history of Mars observation dates back to the era of the ancient Egyptian astronomers. Detailed records regarding the position of the planet Mars were made by Babylonian astronomers and they developed arithmetic techniques to predict the future position of the planet. The ancient Greek philosophers and Hellenistic astronomers developed a detailed geocentric model to explain the motions of the planet. The Indian astronomers and Islamic astronomers estimated the size of Mars and its distance from Earth. In the sixteenth century, Nicholas Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model for the Solar System with the planets following circular orbits about the Sun. This was revised by Johannes Kepler, yielding an elliptic orbit for Mars that more accurately fit the observational data.

Mars was first observed using a telescope by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Within a century, astronomers discovered distinct albedo features on the planet, including the dark patch Syrtis Major and polar ice caps. They also determined the planet's rotation period and axial tilt. Some even speculated about the possibility of life on Mars. Better telescopes introduced early in the nineteenth century allowed permanent Martian albedo features to be mapped in some detail. The first crude map of Mars was published in 1840, followed by more detailed maps from 1877 onward. After astronomers seemingly detected the spectroscopic signature of water in the Martian atmosphere, the idea of life on Mars became popularized among the public. Percival Lowell believed he could see an artificial network of canals on the surface of Mars. These observations later proved to be an optical illusion, and the atmosphere was found to be too thin and dry to support an Earth-like environment.


Earliest records

The existence of Mars as a wandering object in the night sky was recorded by the ancient Egyptian astronomers and by 1534 BCE they were familiar with the retrograde motion of the planet.[1] Mars was portrayed on the ceiling of the tomb of Seti I and on the Ramesseum ceiling, but was notably missing from the Senenmut star map. In the latter case, the planet may have been in conjunction with the Sun.[2]

By the period of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Babylonian astronomers were making regular records of the positions of the planets and systematic observations of their behavior. For Mars, they knew, for example, that the planet made 37 circuits of the Sun every 79 years. They also invented arithmetic methods for making minor corrections to the predicted positions of the planets. This Babylonian planetary theory was primarily derived from timing measurements, rather than the less accurately known position of the planet on the night sky.[3][4] Literature from ancient China confirms that Mars was known by Chinese astronomers by no later than the fourth century BCE.[5]

The early astronomy of ancient Greece was influenced by knowledge transmitted from the Mesopotamian culture. Thus the Babylonians associated Mars with Nergal, their god of war and pestilence, while the Greeks connected the planet with their god of war Ares.[6] Initially the motions of the planets was of little interest to the Greeks, and Hesiod's Works and Days (circa 650 BCE) makes no mention of the planets. However, by the second century BCE, planetary theory was of primary concern in Greek astronomy.[7]

In the fifth century CE, the Indian astronomical text Surya Siddhanta estimates the angular diameter of Mars as 2 arcminutes and its distance to Earth as 6,483,000 miles (1,296,600 yojana, where one yojana is equivalent to five miles in the Surya Siddhanta), from which the diameter of Mars is deduced to be 3,772 miles (754.4 yojana), which has an error within 11% of the currently accepted value of 4,218 miles. However, this estimate was based upon an inaccurate guess of the planet's angular diameter as 2.0 arcminutes. The result may have been influenced by the measurements of the Roman-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, who found a value of 1.57 arcminutes. This is close to the resolution of the human eye and is significantly larger than the value later obtained by telescope.[8]

In the eight century, the Islamic astronomer, Yaqūb ibn Tāriq, attempted to estimate the distance between the Earth and Mars in his Az-Zīj al-Mahlul min as-Sindhind li-Darajat Daraja. He estimated the closest distance as 2,123 times the Earth's radius and the greatest distance as 8,000 times the Earth's radius. He also estimated Mars' diameter as 19/21 that of Earth's radius. His original work has not survived, but his results were later tabulated in Abu Rayhan Biruni's India (1030).[9][10]

Orbital models



Geocentric model of the Universe.

The Greeks used the word planēton to refer to the seven celestial bodies that moved with respect to the background stars and they held a geocentric view that these bodies moved about the Earth. The Greek philosopher Plato provided the oldest known statement regarding the Greek astronomical tradition for the order of these objects in his work, The Republic (X.616E–617B). His list, in order of the most distant to the nearest object, was as follows: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun and the Moon. In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato proposed that the rotation of these objects across the skies depended on their distance, with the furthest object moving the slowest.[11]

Aristotle, a student of Plato, observed an occultation of Mars by the Moon in 365 BCE. From this he concluded that Mars must lie further from the Earth than the Moon. He also noted that other such occultations of stars and planets had been observed by the Egyptians and Babylonians.[12][13][14] Aristotle used this observational evidence to support the Greek sequencing of the planets.[15] Aristotle's work De Caelo presented a model of the universe in which the Sun, Moon and planets all circle about the Earth at a fixed distance.

The first person known to explicitly support a heliocentric theory of the Solar System was Aristarchus of Samos, some time between 310–230 BCE. However, his ideas were generally rejected in favor of geocentrism.[16] The other known supporter of heliocentrism at the time was the Babylonian astronomer, Seleucus of Seleucia, who, according to Bartel Leendert van der Waerden, may have proved the heliocentric theory in the second century BC.[17][18] A more sophisticated version of the geocentric model was developed by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus when he presented an epicycle-deferent model in which Mars moved along a circular track that in turn orbited about the Earth.[19][20]

In Roman Egypt, Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) attempted to address the problem of the orbital motion of Mars. Observations of Mars had shown that the planet appeared to move 40% faster on one side of its orbit than the other, in conflict with the Aristotelian model of uniform motion. Ptolemy modified the epicycle model of planetary motion by adding an equant. This is a point offset from the center of the planet's circular orbit about which the planet moves with uniform angular velocity. Ptolemy's model and his collective work on astronomy was presented in the multi-volume collection Almagest, which became the authoritative treatise on Western astronomy for the next fourteen centuries.[20]


A heliocentric model may have been presented by the Indian astronomer Aryabhata in the fifth century, or by the Persian astronomer Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi in the ninth century, as their astronomical data give the orbital periods of the planets, including Mars, with respect to the Sun.[18] By the thirteenth century, Islamic astronomers were expressing increasing doubt about the validity of the Ptolemaic geocentric model, leading to the construction of the Maragheh observatory where research was conducted to find an alternative.[21][22] The following century, their research culminated in the work of the Syrian astronomer Ibn al-Shatir, who produced an alternative geocentric model that eliminated the need for the Ptolemaic equant and eccentric mechanisms.[23][24]

In the fifteenth century, the Indian astronomer Nilakantha Somayaji developed a geoheliocentric planetary model in which all the known planets, including Mars, orbit the Sun, which in turn orbits the Earth.[25][26] Nilakantha's planetary system also incorporated elliptic orbits.[27] Most Indian astronomers of the Kerala school who followed him accepted his planetary model.[26][25]

Possibly influenced by the work of Ibn al-Shatir,[28] in 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published a heliocentric model in his work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. This elegant approach placed the Earth in a orbit around the Sun between the circular orbits of Venus and Mars. His model successfully explained why the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were on the opposite side of the sky from the Sun whenever they were in the middle of their retrograde motions. Copernicus was able to sort the planets into their correct heliocentric order based solely on the period of their orbits about the Sun.[29] His theory gradually gained acceptance with European astronomers, particularly after the publication of the Prutenic Tables by the German astronomer Erasmus Reinhold in 1551, which were computed using the Copernican model.[22]

On October 13, 1590, the German astronomer Michael Maestlin observed the only recorded occultation of Mars by Venus.[30] One of his students, Johannes Kepler, quickly became an adherent the Copernican system. After the completion of his education, Kepler became an assistant to the Danish nobleman and astronomer, Tycho Brahe. With access granted to Tycho's detailed observations of Mars, Kepler was set to work mathematically assembling a replacement to the Prutenic Tables. After repeatedly failing to fit the motion of Mars into a circular orbit as required under Copernicanism, he succeeded at matching Tycho's observations by assuming the orbit was an ellipse with the Sun located at one of the foci. His model became the basis for Kepler's laws of planetary motion, which were published in his multi-volume work Epitome astronomia Copernicanae (Epitome of Copernican Astronomy) between 1615-1621.[31]

Telescope study

Early observations

The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was the first person known to use a telescope to make astronomical observations. His records indicate that he began observing Mars through a telescope in September 1610, with the goal of seeing if the planet exhibited phases similar to Venus. Although uncertain of his success, by December he did note that Mars had shrunk in angular size.[32] Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius succeeded in observing a phase of Mars in 1645.[33]

The low albedo feature Syrtis Major is visible at the disk center. NASA/HST image.

In 1644, the Italian Jesuit Daniello Bartoli reported seeing two darker patches on Mars. During the oppositions of 1651, 1653 and 1655, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli and his student Francesco Maria Grimaldi noted albedo patches on Mars.[34] The first person to draw a map of Mars that displayed any terrain features was the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. On November 28, 1659 he made an illustration of Mars that showed the distinct dark region now known as Syrtis Major, and possibly also one of the polar ice caps.[35] The same year, he also succeeded in measuring the rotation period of the planet, giving it as approximately 24 hours.[33] He made a rough estimate of the diameter of Mars, guessing that it is about 60% of the size of the Earth (which compares well with the modern value of 53%).[36]

The Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini was perhaps the first to definitively mention the southern polar ice cap of Mars in 1666. That same year, he used observations of the surface markings on Mars to determine a rotation period of 24h 40m. This differs from the correct value by less than three minutes. In 1672, Christiaan Huygens noticed a fuzzy white cap at the north pole.[37]

After Cassini became the first director of the Paris Observatory in 1671, he tackled the problem of the physical scale of the Solar System. For this purpose, the diurnal parallax of Mars was measured during the 1672 perihelical opposition. Cassini and Jean Picard determined the position of Mars in Paris, while French astronomer Jean Richer made the measurements in Cayenne, South America. Although these observations were hampered by the quality of the instruments, Cassini's result came within 10% of the correct value.[38][39] The English astronomer John Flamsteed made comparable measurement attempts and had similar results.[40]

In 1704, French-Italian astronomer Jacques Philippe Maraldi made a systematic study of the southern cap and noticed that it underwent variation as the planet rotated. This indicated that the cap was not centered on the pole. He also observed that the cap varied in size over time.[34][41]

The German-English astronomer William Herschel began making observations of the planet Mars in 1777; particularly of the planet's polar caps. In 1781, he noted that the south cap appeared "extremely large", which he ascribed to that pole being in darkness for the past twelve months. By 1784, the southern cap appeared much smaller, thereby suggesting that the caps vary with the planet's seasons and thus were made of ice. In 1781, he estimated the rotation period of Mars as 24h 39m 21.67s and measured the axial tilt of the planet to be roughly 28.5°. He noted that Mars had a "considerable but moderate atmosphere, so that its inhabitants probably enjoy a situation in many respects similar to ours".[41][42][43][44]

Between 1796 and 1809, the French astronomer Honoré Flaugergues noticed some obscurations of Mars, suggesting "ochre-colored veils" covered the surface. This may be the earliest report of yellow clouds or storms on Mars.[45][46]

Geographical period

At the start of the nineteenth century, improvements in the size and quality of telescope optics proved a significant advance in observation capability. Most notable among these enhancements was the two-component achromatic lens of the German optician Joseph von Fraunhofer that essentially eliminated coma. By 1812, Fraunhofer had succeeded in creating an achromatic objective lens 19 cm (7.5 in) in diameter.[47][48]

During the opposition of Mars in 1830 (when the Earth and Mars made their closest approach to each other along their respective orbits), the German astronomers Johann Heinrich Mädler and Wilhelm Beer used a 95 mm (3.7 in) Fraunhofer refracting telescope to launch an extensive study of the planet. They chose a feature located 8° south of the equator as their point of reference. (This was later named the Sinus Meridiani, and it would become the zero meridian of Mars). During their observations, they established that most of Mars’ surface features were permanent, and more precisely determined the planet's rotation period. In 1840, Mädler combined ten years of observations and drew the first map of Mars. Rather than giving names to the various markings, Beer and Mädler simply designated them with letters; Meridian Bay (Sinus Meridiani) was thus feature "a".[33][48][49]

Working at the Vatican Observatory during the opposition of Mars in 1858, Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi noticed a large blue triangular feature, which he named the "Blue Scorpion". This same seasonal cloud-like formation was seen by English astronomer J. Norman Lockyer in 1862, and it has been viewed subsequently by other observers.[50] During the 1862 opposition, Dutch astronomer Frederik Kaiser produced drawings of Mars. By comparing his illustrations with those of Huygens and the English natural philosopher Robert Hooke, he was able to further refine the rotation period of Mars. His value of 24h 37m 22.6s is accurate to within a tenth of a second.[48][51]

Proctor's map of Mars

Father Secchi produced some of the first color illustrations of Mars in 1863. He used the names of famous explorers for the distinct features. In 1869, he observed two dark linear features on the surface that he referred to as canali, which is Italian for 'channels' or 'grooves'.[52][53][54] In 1867, English astronomer Richard A. Proctor created a more detailed map of Mars based on the 1864 drawings of English astronomer William R. Dawes. Proctor named the various albedo features after astronomers, past and present, who had contributed to the observations of Mars. During the same decade, comparable maps and nomenclature were produced by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion and the English astronomer Nathan Green.[54]

At the University of Leipzig in 1862–64, German astronomer Johann K. F. Zöllner used a photometer he had developed to measure the albedo of the Moon, planets and bright stars. For Mars, he derived an albedo of 0.27. Between 1877–93, German astronomers Gustav Müller and Paul Kempf observed Mars using Zöllner's photometer. They found a small phase coefficient, indicating that the surface of Mars is relatively smooth and without large irregularities.[55]

In 1867, French astronomer Pierre Janssen and British astronomer William Huggins used spectroscopes to examine the atmosphere of Mars. Both compared the spectrum of Mars to that of the Moon. As the spectrum of the latter did not display absorption lines of water, they believed they had detected the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere of Mars. This result was confirmed by German astronomer Herman C. Vogel in 1872 and English astronomer Edward W. Maunder in 1875, but would later come into question.[56]

A particularly favorable perihelic opposition occurred in 1877. The English astronomer David Gill used this opportunity to measure the diurnal parallax of Mars from Ascension Island. With these measurements, he was able to more accurately determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun, based upon the relative size of the orbits of Mars and the Earth.[57] He also noted that the edge of the disk of Mars appeared fuzzy because of the atmosphere, which limited the precision he could obtain for the planet's position.[58]

In August 1877, the American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered the two moons of Mars using a 660 mm (26 in) telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory.[59] The names of the two satellites, Phobos and Deimos, were chosen by Hall based upon a suggestion by Henry Madan, a science instructor at Eton College in England.[60]

Martian canals

Map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli
Mars sketched as observed by Lowell sometime before 1914. (South top)

During the 1877 opposition, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli used a 22 cm (8.7 in) telescope to help produce the first detailed map of Mars. These maps notably contained features he called canali, which were later shown to be an optical illusion. These canali were supposedly long straight lines on the surface of Mars to which he gave names of famous rivers on Earth. His term canali was popularly mistranslated in English as canals.[61][62] In 1886, the English astronomer William F. Denning observed that these linear features were irregular in nature and showed concentrations and interruptions. By 1895, English astronomer Edward Maunder became convinced that the linear features were merely the summation of many smaller details.[63]

In his 1892 work La planète Mars et ses conditions d'habitabilité, Camille Flammarion wrote about how these channels resembled man-made canals, which an intelligent race could use to redistribute water across a dying Martian world. He advocated for the existence of just such inhabitants, and suggested they may be more advanced than humans.[64]

Influenced by the observations of Schiaparelli, the orientalist Percival Lowell founded an observatory with 30-and-45 cm (12-and-18 in) telescopes. The observatory was used for the exploration of Mars during the last good opportunity in 1894 and the following less favorable oppositions. He published several books on Mars and life on the planet, which had a great influence on the public.[65] The canali were also found by other astronomers, such as Henri Joseph Perrotin and Louis Thollon with a 38 cm (15 in) refractor at the Nice Observatory, one of the largest telescopes of that time.[66][67]

Beginning in 1901, efforts were made to photograph the canal features of Mars by A. E. Douglass. These efforts appeared to succeed when Carl O. Lampland published photographs of the canals in 1905.[68] Although these results were widely accepted, they became contested by Greek astronomer Eugène M. Antoniadi, English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and others as imagined features.[63][69] As bigger telescopes were used, fewer long, straight canali were observed. During an observation in 1909 by Flammarion with a 84 cm (33 in) telescope, irregular patterns were observed, but no canali were seen.[70]

Refining planetary parameters

In 1894, American astronomer William W. Campbell found that the spectrum of Mars was identical to the spectrum of the Moon, throwing doubt on the burgeoning theory that the atmosphere of Mars is similar to that of the Earth. Previous detections of water in the atmosphere of Mars were blamed upon unfavorable conditions, and Campbell determined that the water signature came entirely from the Earth's atmosphere. Although he agreed that the ice caps did indicate there was some water in the atmosphere, he did not believe the caps were sufficiently large to allow the water vapor to be detected.[71] At the time, Campbell's results were considered controversial and were criticized by some members of the astronomical community, but they were later confirmed by American astronomer Walter S. Adams in 1925.[72]

Baltic German astronomer Hermann Struve used the observed speed of rotation of the apsides of the Martian moons to determine the amount of secular perturbation caused by the planet's oblateness. In 1895, he published a value of 1/190 for this rotational flattening.[41][73] In 1911, he refined the value to 1/192. This result was confirmed by American meteorologist Edgar W. Woolard in 1944.[74]

In the left image, thin Martian clouds are visible near the polar regions.[75] At right, the surface of Mars is obscured by a dust storm. NASA/HST images

Surface obscuration caused by yellow clouds had been noted in the 1870s when they were observed by Schiaparelli. Further evidence for such clouds was observed during the oppositions of 1892 and 1907. In 1909, Antoniadi noted that the presence of yellow clouds was associated with the obscuration of albedo features. He discovered that Mars appeared more yellow during perihelic oppositions, when the planet received 50% more solar energy than during an aphelic opposition. He suggested windblown sand or dust as the cause of the clouds.[76][77]

Using a vacuum thermocouple attached to the 2.54 m (100 in) Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, in 1924 the American astronomers Seth Barnes Nicholson and Edison Pettit were able to measure the thermal energy being radiated by the surface of Mars. They determined that the temperature ranged from −68 °C (−90 °F) at the pole up to 7 °C (45 °F) at the mid-point of the disk (corresponding to the equator).[78] Beginning in the same year, radiometric measurements of Mars were made by American physicist William Coblentz and American astronomer Carl Otto Lampland. The results showed that the night time temperature on Mars dropped to −85 °C (−121 °F), indicating an "enormous diurnal fluctuation" in temperatures.[79] The temperature of Martian clouds was measured as −30 °C (−22 °F).[80]

In 1926, by measuring spectral lines that were red shifted by the orbital motions of Mars and Earth, American astronomer Walter Sydney Adams was able to directly measure the amount of oxygen and water vapour in the atmosphere of Mars. He determined that "extreme desert conditions" were prevalent on Mars.[81] In 1934, Adams and American astronomer Theodore Dunham, Jr. found that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars was less than one percent of the amount over a comparable area on Earth.[82]

During the 1920s, French astronomer Bernard Lyot used polarimeter to study the surface properties of the Moon and planets. In 1929, he noted that the polarized light emitted from the Martian surface is very similar to that radiated from the Moon, although he speculated that some of his observations could be explained by frost and possibly vegetation. Based on the amount of sunlight scattered by the Martian atmosphere, he set an upper limit of 1/15 the thickness of the Earth's atmosphere. This restricted the surface pressure to no greater than 2.4 kPa (24 mbar).[83]

Using infrared spectrometery, in 1947 the Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper detected carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. He was able to estimate that the amount of carbon dioxide over a given area of the surface is double that on the Earth. However, because he over-estimated the surface pressure on Mars, Kuiper concluded erroneously that the ice caps could not be composed of frozen carbon dioxide.[84] In 1948, American meteorologist Seymour L. Hess determined that the formation of the thin Martian clouds would only require 4 mm (0.16 in) of precipitatable water and a vapor pressure of 0.1 kPa (1.0 mbar).[80]

Based upon observations of the near Earth asteroid Eros from 1926 to 1945, German-American astronomer Eugene K. Rabe was able to estimate the mass of Mars based upon the planet's perturbations of the asteroid.[85]

The first standard nomenclature for Mars albedo features was introduced by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) when in 1960 they adopted 128 names from the 1929 map of Antoniadi named La Planète Mars. The Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) was established in 1973 to standardize the naming scheme for Mars and other bodies.[86]

Remote sensing

Since the 1960s, multiple robotic spacecraft have been sent to explore Mars from orbit and the surface in extensive detail. In addition, remote sensing of Mars from Earth by ground-based and orbiting telescopes has continued. These include infrared observations to determine the surface composition,[87] ultraviolet and submillimeter observation of the atmospheric composition,[88][89] and radio measurements of Doppler shifts caused by winds.[90] The Chandra X-ray Observatory has solar X-rays being scattered in the upper martian atmosphere.[91] The Hubble Space Telescope has been used to perform systematic studies of Mars[92] and has taken the highest resolution images of Mars ever captured from Earth.[93]

The International Planetary Patrol Program was formed in 1969 as a consortium to continually monitor planetary changes. This worldwide program focused significant activity on observing the development of dust storms on Mars. The resulting array of images allowed Martian seasonal patterns to be studied globally. The program demonstrated that most Martian dust storms occur when the planet is closest to the Sun.[94]

See also


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