Being one of the five planets visible to the naked eye, Mars has always fascinated humans – and since it is on occasion visibly red because of the iron oxide on its surface, it has long been associated with war and slaughter. The Babylonians called it Nergal for their god of death and pestilence, long before the Romans named it after their god of war. By the 17th century, astronomers were observing it by telescope and noting its polar caps. The first detailed maps of Mars were made in the late 19th century by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. He named its “seas” and “continents”, and noted “channels”, or canali, on its surface – which were actually an optical illusion.
Schiaparelli thought these were natural features, but as his assumptions were popularised, the “canals” of Mars were seen more literally, giving rise to waves of speculation and folklore about the possibility of intelligent life, and whole civilisations, on Mars. Nikola Tesla thought he had picked up signals from Mars. H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898, in which Martians escape their dying planet to invade Earth. The astronomer Carl Sagan observed: “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”
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