As we saw last week, close approaches of Mars, which astronomers call oppositions, bring out the “crazy” in some people.
Mars mania created both the best and worst experience we had at Perkins Observatory during my 26 years there.
In 2003, Mars was to have one of its close approaches. The media were exultant. It wouldn’t be as visible again until 2035! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
No matter that Mars never looks that spectacular in a telescope. Normally, the Red Planet looks like a tiny orange dot. During an opposition, it looks like a slightly larger dot with a few fuzzy green markings.
Nonetheless, the astronomical world prepared to do public programs centered on Mars. At Perkins, we scheduled 10 straight nights of Mars observing.
And then came an email from a well-known astronomer, who will remain nameless here. It included factual, if slightly overblown, information about the opposition. Unfortunately, it also contained the following sentence:
“At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye.”
The writer had placed an inadvertent carriage return after the word “magnification.” It also didn’t help that he left out the comma.
As a result, some people saw only the last part of the sentence. The word spread like wildfire that Mars would be “as big as the full moon to the naked eye.”
The date set for the stupendous event was Aug. 27, 2003, when Mars was at its closest — 34 million miles away.
The astronomical community responded with sober warnings about how Mars would really look, but their words were lost in the frenzy. I was called, among other pejoratives, a “spoilsport” on a local radio station.
Our programs at Perkins were all packed with people who responded to the real telescopic image of Mars with a mixture of disappointment and even anger. It was the first and only time that I was derisively heckled from an audience at Perkins.
But it doesn’t take an opposition to put some people in a state of Mars mania.
A flurry of Martian invasion movies can do the trick. As we saw last week, 1953 saw the release of a terrifying film version of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”
Also released was “Invaders from Mars,” in which a young boy witnesses his own parents and other townspeople turn into emotionless zombies by Martian invaders. When I was 11 years old, I saw the movie on television a few years after its release. I still have disquieting dreams about the flick over half a century later.
One result of the films’ release was a flurry of Martian sightings in the U.S. Some of them were outright hoaxes.
The most unsettling example happened during the predawn hours of July 8, 1953, in Cobb County, Georgia. (Warning: The following description contains extreme animal cruelty.)
A patrolling police officer drove up to Ed Watters and two of his friends standing by the side of the road. On the road in front of them was a small, dead creature that looked for all the world like an alien. The police officer saw burn marks near the creature. He also saw skid marks on the road.
Watters told the officer that he and his friends had been out “honky-tonkin’” when they almost ran into a saucer-shaped vehicle. Several of its passengers had run quickly to their spacecraft, but Watters had hit one of them with his truck.
The flying saucer quickly took off and left the burn marks on the ground.
The event created a media sensation, and rightly so. Just the night before, several saucer-shaped spacecraft had been reported over nearby Decatur, Georgia. The “Mars Man,” as the newspapers called the alien, was definitive proof of an alien presence on Earth.
However, the creature was soon examined by experts and found to be a Capuchin monkey with its hair and tail removed.
Ed Watters had bet his two companions $10 he could get his picture in the newspaper. Subsequently, he purchased the monkey for $50 and gave it a lethal dose of chloroform. He cut off its tail and removed its hair with depilatory cream. He and his companions had blowtorched the burn marks on the ground.
Because of a legal technicality, Watters was not convicted of any major crime. Instead, he paid a small fine for blocking the roadway. He soon left town because the “Mars Man” appellation had been transferred from the poor monkey to him.
Since 1976, when the Viking 1 spacecraft (an orbiter and a lander) sent the first close-up images of the planet, Mars aficionados have poured over both the Viking images and images by subsequent spacecraft. They are looking for evidence of life on Mars.
In the most notable example, Viking 1 imaged a Martian mountain that looked like a human face. Some commentators, most notably Richard C. Hoagland, argued that the “Face on Mars” is evidence of a Martian civilization that expired long ago. And frankly, it did indeed look like a helmeted human countenance. Also, it had strange pyramidal structures nearby.
Twenty years later, various American spacecraft imaged the same area at higher resolution. During the intervening two decades, the mountain of Martian sand had scattered. No face was present.
What does the Hoagland episode of Mars Mania prove? As retired OSU planetary scientist Gerald Newsome once commented to me, “If you pile up rubble in enough different ways, one of them is bound to look like something familiar.”
Since Viking, Martian photo fanatics have found more human-like features. They include two female statues, a partial stone rendering of an Assyrian god, a Sasquatch skull, and a human thigh bone.
Other signs of an intelligent civilization include a plume of “smoke” from a Martian factory, which turns out to be a simple avalanche, and various “unnaturally” shiny objects, which are small pieces of the spacecraft that have fallen or flaked off.
And then there are the attempts to communicate. The weirdest example consists of sand dunes eerily shaped like Morse code. Their exact meaning has yet to be discovered because they translate as “NEE NED ZB 6TNN DEIBEDH SIEFI EBEEE SSIEI ESEE SEEE !!,” according to NASA scientist Veronica Bray.
In fact, the structures really are sand dunes. Their scattered “dot-dash” structure is caused by the complex interactions of bi-directional winds in the thin Martian atmosphere.
But wait. There’s more. Stunning coiled “petroglyphs” are really just very old lava flows.
Signs of more primitive life include a crab-like creature, slug-like sand dunes, tree sticks, and a fossilized fish.
Examples of faces are not limited to Hoagland’s Face on Mars. Others include Beaker (the lab assistant from The Muppet Show), Pac-Man, a side view of a face puckered up to give a kiss, a rocky head carving of Donald Trump, and Elvis in full Vegas regalia.
Most of the strange images can be explained by quirks in Martian geology. But another quite-human principle is at work. When faced with unfamiliar situations, our brains tend to see recognizable faces and shapes in unrelated objects. We do it when we see a bunny in a cloud formation, and we do it when we look at Martian images.
Sometimes, even scientists can be fooled. In 1995, a microscopic examination of two Martian meteorites discovered on Earth seemed to provide evidence that simple, microscopic life might have once infected the Martian surface. NASA astronomers waited a full year before they published an image of what looked like a fossilized microbe. They wanted to be absolutely certain.
Could those rocks have been blown from the surface of Mars by large meteorite impacts? Yes. Certainly.
Did those rocks float in space for millions of years before they came to ground on Earth? You bet.
Could the “microbe” discovered in one of those rocks be fossilized life similar to viruses on Earth? Nope. Geologists outside of NASA immediately disposed of that notion.
During a Martian opposition, you can see with your own eye (and a suitable telescope) just what a desolate place Mars is now — a desert planet with temperatures cold enough to generate polar caps made up primarily of dry ice.
Discoveries by American spacecraft suggest that it was not always so. Billions of years ago, Mars may have been much warmer. Liquid water may have flowed in great rivers and existed in oceans on the planet.
The most recent Martian landers have concentrated their efforts on finding signs of that water on Mars. One is even drilling down in the hope that water in liquid form may lie deep below its surface. If we ever plan to plant long-term colonies on Mars, finding water we can use is an absolute necessity.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.