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February, the month to celebrate Mars

February has been an eventful month for Mars. In less than one month, spacecraft from three countries have arrived at the Red Planet. On 9 February 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe – the country’s first Martian mission – entered the planet’s orbit. The very next day, China’s first Martian mission Tianwen-1 joined the UAE and will orbit Mars while it waits for an opportune time to land. Eight days later, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars’ Jezero crater to conduct various scientific experiments, including investigating whether there was once life on Mars.

Mars has always caught the fascination of Man, since time immemorial. Though named after the Roman god of war, mention of the planet pre-dates the Romans and is to be found in in practically every culture from the Babylonians to the early Hindus. Even Plato, in his Timaeus, mentions Mars as one of the five planets, and attempts to expound a theory on planetary motion, as did Aristotle.

For a long time, particular during the Dark and Middle Ages, Mars and the other planets remained mostly in the domain of literature, astrology and occultism (at least in Europe). In was not until the 1700s, when astronomy took off, that Mars became a subject in its own right, prompting scientific theories and discussions. But because early telescopes weren’t very powerful, it took nearly a century for Mars to be properly observed by astronomers.

By the late 1800s, public interest in Mars was great enough for popular books to be published on the subject, and for scientific theories to be propagated for the general audience. Many of these theories have now been debunked; one of these was the idea that there life on Mars exists, said to be “proven” through the observation of canals on Mars that were deemed artificially constructed.

One of the most avid proponents of such a theory was Percival Lowell, an American businessman who became determined to study Mars as a full-time career. He proceeded to build his own observatory in Arizona in 1894, and spent 15 years studying Mars and illustrating what he saw. To this theory he devoted three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), Mars As the Abode of Life (1908), the last of which explains in detail his theory that there is intelligent life of Mars, attempting to rescue itself in a dying planet.

Lowell was to have a massive impact not on science proper, but on science fiction; and it is said that his theories influenced H. G. Wells’ bestseller The War of the Worlds, and the canals he talked about feature in many works of science fiction throughout the 20th century. One such story, ‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum, can be found in the collection 3000 Years of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by L. Sprague De Camp, which also contains an excerpt from Plato’s Timaeus (but discussing Atlantis, not the planets.)

Although astronomy was, and still is, crucial to the study of the planets and the universe, it was only with the development of rockets that a truly up-close and personal look at Mars could be achieved. Rocketry as a science began in Russia in the late 19th/early 20th – a time when men were thirsting for exploration but had almost run out of places on Earth to venture towards. Therefore, they turned their eyes to the stars, and before World War II, rocket tests were springing up all over Europe (especially Germany and Russia) and the USA, propelled mainly by a few Men Behind the Space Rockets, such as Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun.

Incidentally, Wernher von Braun was famously (or infamously) a leading figure in rocket development in Nazi Germany, before he was poached by the USA after World War 2 to lead the country’s fledgling rocket programme. At that time, because of the Cold War, space exploration was seen as, basically, a competitive sport between the USA and Soviet Union. The race to develop better technologies, and go faster, further, bigger prompted the Moon landing and shortly before even that, the first forays to Mars. The first successful mission to Mars was accomplished in 1965, with NASA’s Mariner 4 being the first human-made object to reach Mars and fly past it. Since then, there have been numerous missions from various countries around the world, including India.

Today, the quest to study Mars has gone far beyond either the earlier thirst for exploration or realpolitik. Both still exist, but a third element has come into play – the need to find an alternative home for humanity in case something happens to Earth. It is for this reason that SpaceX is developing a spaceship that can carry people to Mars; and for this reason that the UAE has plans to colonise Mars within 100 years. Science has brought much progress technology, but it has also made us aware of the numerous ways by which the Earth can be destroyed; and most of this is outlined in Asimov’s apocalyptic non-fiction work, A Choice of Catastrophes.

The Earth may or may not be hit by a comet or anything else. But what will remain is humanity’s innate instinct to go boldly where no Man has gone before, and to write about it in a compelling way. Meanwhile, we’ll all hopefully live long and prosper. Here’s to Mars!