KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.
Humans have long been fascinated by Mars. But only recently have scientists been able to study the planet in detail. This Sunday the Curiosity rover will touch down on the red planet, allowing scientists to learn a lot more. It's a mobile science lab with the ability to analyze Martian dirt and rocks to look for signs of life.
The rover is the latest in a long history of attempts to understand Mars. To cover several centuries of scientific discovery in short order, KPCC's Sanden Totten crafted this poem.
High in the sky, it's red and it's scary.
To the Romans it was Mars, to the Greeks it was Ares.
The Egyptians and Babylonians tracked its path.
But couldn't figure its distance 'cause the didn't have the math.
A guy named Kepler and another named Brahe,
Determined the planet was far, far away.
In 1609, Galileo - no dope
Was the first to peep it through telescope.
Giovanni Cassini had no Martian clock
But he computed somehow the length of a day on that rock.
Astronomer Huygens drew detailed maps
And marked white spots that looked like ice caps.
In 1877 Aseph Hall looked to the stars
And saw Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars.
What we knew at this point was far from banal
Then came the craze of the Martian canal.
American Percival Lowell popularized the idea of canals on Mars. He wasn't an astronomer but became enamored with space and in 1893 he built a giant telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Lowell focused on Mars and was convinced he saw a complex system of canals on Mars.
Laruen Amundson from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff says Lowell developed a mythology around these supposed canals.
"He sort of figured that this was this desert planet," Amundson explains. "And that whatever life was on it, they some how had managed to figure out how to get water from these poles to the other parts of the planet via these canals."
Lowell's theories were met with skepticism but it wasn't until 1964 that a NASA mission called Mariner 4 was able to bring back detailed picture of the Martian surface.
Bethany Ehlmann is a planetary scientist with Cal Tech. She says those pictures answered many questions.
"Well the first pictures that came back were of the southern parts of Mars which is an ancient, heavily cratered highlands," says Ehlmanm. "And people were bummed. And there was all this hope that Mars was different and maybe there was another intelligent civilization."
But as more missions flew to Mars a better understanding of the planet developed.
Scientists now know that Mars has an atmosphere made mostly of Carbon Dioxide. They have also determined that Mars is very cold, with average temperatures around -60 degrees Celsius. It has the largest known volcano in the universe, Olympus Mons, though it is not currently active.
Research has also shown that Mars has a great deal of water frozen at the North and South poles. Many Mars observers believe the planet was once warm and wet, like Earth was in its early days.
The Curiosity rover is the latest mission to study the red planet. It will look for organic compounds in the soil. If it finds them, it means Mars has the building blocks necessary for life. Through it is unlikely there are any advanced civilization building canals as Percival Lowell once thought.
To summarize the state of knowledge on Mars, reporter Sanden Totten penned a couplet.
Our knowledge of Mars has grown year by year, though the planet seems so far away.
It's just a matter of time before we live there, since we can't afford homes in L.A.
(Note: This segment has been updated. One of the moons of Mars was identified incorrectly.)