[FOUNTAIN]The ‘grand return’ of Mars“The creature’s face was round. As it dripped saliva and screamed, it swayed its lank tentacles in the air. It was like Gorgon, a sea monster in Greek mythology.” This description of an octopus-like creature from Mars in H.G. Wells’ 1898 science novel “The War of the Worlds” may sound absurd today but at that time it reflected, in its own way, an imagination based on scientific observation. Scholars in those days presumed that, since the southern polar cap of Mars appeared to be covered with ice, the whole planet must be filled with water. That is why Martians were depicted as sea monsters.
Mars recently reached its closest point to Earth in more than 50,000 years ― approximately 50 million kilometers. But Mars comes relatively close to Earth every 15-17 years. In astronomical circles, it is called “the grand return of Mars.” When the Earth catches up with the orbit of Mars in a 26-month cycle, a “small” return of Mars takes place. After the telescope was developed, mankind was excited at every “return” of Mars because it was an opportunity to closely examine the red planet, a symbol of war and disaster. Looking at Mars through a telescope’s lens fueled people’s imaginations.
The mystery of Mars began in 1638, when Francesco Fontana verified the existence of a “large black spot” through a telescope. At the beginning of the 18th century it was suggested that a botanical zone that changes with the seasons might exist on Mars, given that the planet’s color changes as it approaches the Earth. In the mid-19th century, an Italian astronomer contended that there was a huge 1,600-kilometer canal on Mars, 10 times longer than the Suez Canal. In 1911, major American newspapers printed articles stating that “Martians built two great canals in two years,” and the belief grew that creatures more intelligent than man might exist on Mars.
But In July 1965, pictures that the U.S. spacecraft Mariner 4 took as it passed through the upper atmosphere of Mars seemed to end mankind’s dreams about the planet. The pictures revealed only a seemingly endless desolate surface. Subsequent explorations appeared to confirm that Mars was a dead planet.
Though the enthusiasm for the recent “return” was less in Korea, in some other countries telescopes sold out and crowds surged to observatories. Despite space exploration, Mars is still a planet that makes men dream.
by Lee Kyu-youn
The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.