Skyscript home page

An apparent
face on Mars

Life on Mars?

Ideas that life may exist on Mars have always held a fascination for earthlings, even though its atmosphere is hardly conducive to life forms. It consists of 95% carbon dioxide and is extremely thin, giving huge variations in daily surface temperature and a low percentage of atmospheric moisture. Nonetheless, curious reports of canals, faces and sculptures have helped to foster a belief in Martians for many years.

The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli was the first to report an observation of a planet-wide system of channels in 1877. He noted a series of straight lines that he called canali and although other astronomers did not consistently approve his findings, some very eminent ones did. The suggestion provided fertile ground for science fiction writers of the period and the public were excited by suggestions of the canals offering evidence of an advanced irrigation system created by the planet's inhabitants.

In 1905 the astronomer Percival Lowell, who also predicted the discovery of Pluto, sensationally popularised the theory in his his book Mars and its Canals, stating 'that Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain'. Widespread opinion swept in his favour, the controversy only finally being resolved by the Mariner exploration missions that carried out unpiloted probings of Mars between 1964 and 1976. No evidence of canals were found and they were dismissed as optical illusions caused by the eye's tendency to join up noticeable landmarks with straight lines

Recently, the possibility of life on Mars re-emerged in media attention, with samples taken from its surface offering evidence of bacterial action that could be suggestive of lower forms of life. Later studies, however, concluded that the bacteria could have been formed during the testing process, so the results were inconclusive. Scientists have not dismissed the possibility of life on Mars, nor ruled out that life may have existed in the past, given the strong evidence of climactic change and the indications of a previously warmer, thicker atmosphere and flowing waters on its surface. Hopefully this is a mystery that will be fully determined in our life-time since a proposed manned voyage by the United States National Aeronautic and Space Administration has been planned for early in the 21st century, boosted by the possibility of using the Moon as an interstellar launch-pad.

More on Mars