Is Mars Habitable?/Chapter 1

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Few persons except astronomers fully realise that of all the planets of the Solar system the only one whose solid surface has been seen with certainty is Mars; and, very fortunately, that is also the only one which is sufficiently near to us for the physical features of the surface to be determined with any accuracy, even if we could see it in the other planets. Of Venus we probably see only the upper surface of its cloudy atmosphere.[1] As regards Jupiter and Saturn this is still more certain, since their low density will only permit of a comparatively small proportion of their huge bulk being solid. Their belts are but the cloud-strata of their upper atmosphere, perhaps thousands of miles above their solid surfaces, and a somewhat similar condition seems to prevail in the far more remote planets Uranus and Neptune. It has thus happened, that, although as telescopic objects of interest and beauty, the marvellous rings of Saturn, the belts and ever-changing aspects of the satellites of Jupiter, and the moon-like phases of Venus, together with its extreme brilliancy, still remain unsurpassed, yet the greater amount of details of these features when examined with the powerful instruments of the nineteenth century have neither added much to our knowledge of the planets themselves or led to any sensational theories calculated to attract the popular imagination.

But in the case of Mars the progress of discovery has had a very different result. The most obvious peculiarity of this planet—its polar snow-caps—were seen about 250 years ago, but they were first proved to increase and decrease alternately, in the summer and winter of each hemisphere, by Sir William Herschell in the latter part of the eighteenth century. This fact gave the impulse to that idea of similarity in the conditions of Mars and the earth, which the recognition of many large dusky patches and streaks as water, and the more ruddy and brighter portions as land, further increased. Added to this, a day only about half an hour longer than our own, and a succession of seasons of the same character as ours but of nearly double the length owing to its much longer year, seemed to leave little wanting to render this planet a true earth on a smaller scale. It was therefore very natural to suppose that it must be inhabited, and that we should some day obtain evidence of the fact.

The Canals discovered by Schiaparelli.

Hence the great interest excited when Schiaparelli, at the Milan Observatory, during the very favourable opposition of 1877 and 1879, observed that the whole of the tropical and temperate regions from 60° N. to 60° S. Lat. were covered with a remarkable network of broader curved and narrower straight lines of a dark colour. At each successive favourable opposition, these strange objects called canali (channels) by their discoverer, but rather misleadingly 'canals' in England and America, were observed by means of all the great telescopes in the world, and their reality and general features became well established. In Schiaparelli's first map they were represented as being much broader and less sharply defined than he himself and other observers found by later and equally favourable observations that they really were.

Discovery of the Double Canals.

In 1881 another strange feature was discovered by Schiaparelli, who found that about twenty canals which had previously been seen single were now distinctly double, that is, that they consisted of two parallel lines, equally distinct and either very close together or a considerable distance apart. This curious appearance was at first thought to be due to some instrumental defect or optical illusion; but as it was soon confirmed by other observers with the best instruments and in widely different localities it became in time accepted as a real phenomenon of the planet's surface.

Round Spots discovered in 1892.

At the favourable opposition of 1892, Mr. W. H. Pickering noticed that besides the 'seas' of various sizes there were numerous very small black spots apparently quite circular and occurring at every intersection or starting-point of the 'canals.' Many of these had been seen by Schiaparelli as larger and ill-defined dark patches, and were termed seas or lakes; but Mr. Pickering's observatory was at Arequipa in Peru, about 8000 feet above the sea, and with such perfect atmospheric conditions as were, in his opinion, equal to a doubling of telescopic aperture. They were soon detected by other observers, especially by Mr. Lowell in 1894, who thus wrote of them:

"Scattered over the orange-ochre groundwork of the continental regions of the planet, are any number of dark round spots. How many there may be it is not possible to state, as the better the seeing, the more of them there seem to be. In spite, however, of their great number, there is no instance of one unconnected with a canal. What is more, there is apparently none that does not lie at the junction of several canals. Reversely, all the junctions appear to be provided with spots. Plotted upon a globe they and their connecting canals make a most curious network over all the orange-ochre equatorial parts of the planet, a mass of lines and knots, the one marking being as omnipresent as the other."

Changes of Colour recognised.

During the oppositions of 1892 and 1894 it was fully recognised that a regular course of change occurred dependent upon the succession of the seasons, as had been first suggested by Schiaparelli. As the polar snows melt the adjacent seas appear to overflow and spread out as far as the tropics, and are often seen to assume a distinctly green colour. These remarkable changes and the extraordinary phenomena of perfect straight lines crossing each other over a large portion of the planet's surface, with the circular spots at their intersections, had such an appearance of artificiality that the idea that they were really 'canals' made by intelligent beings for purposes of irrigation, was first hinted at, and then adopted as the only intelligible explanation, by Mr. Lowell and a few other persons. This at once seized upon the public imagination and was spread by the newspapers and magazines over the whole civilised world.

Existence of Seas doubted.

At this time (1894) it began to be doubted whether there were any seas at all on Mars. Professor Pickering thought they were far more limited in size than had been supposed, and even might not exist as true seas. Professor Barnard, with the Lick thirty-six inch telescope, discerned an astonishing wealth of detail on the surface of Mars, so intricate, minute, and abundant, that it baffled all attempts to delineate it; and these peculiarities were seen upon the supposed seas as well as on the land-surfaces. In fact, under the best conditions these 'seas' lost all trace of uniformity, their appearance being that of a mountainous country, broken by ridges, rifts, and canyons, seen from a great elevation. As we shall see later on these doubts soon became certainties, and it is now almost universally admitted that Mars possesses no permanent bodies of water.

  1. Mercury also seems to have a scanty atmosphere, but as its mass is only one-thirtieth that of the earth it can retain only the heavier gases, and its atmosphere may be dust-laden, as is that of Mars, according to Mr. Lowell. Its dusky markings, as seen by Schiaparelli, seem to be permanent, and they are also for considerable periods unchangeable in position, indicating that the planet keeps the same face towards the sun as does Venus. This was confirmed by Mr. Lowell in 1896. Its distance from us and unfavourable position for observation must prevent us from obtaining any detailed knowledge of its actual surface, though its low reflective power indicates that the surface may be really visible.