Scientific Facts About Mars that Every Earthling Should Know
Adapted from Max Goes to Mars by Dr. Jeffrey Bennett
Stars and Planets
Can you spot planets among the stars? Sometimes it’s easy. Venus and Jupiter often shine more brightly than any star in the night sky, and you may recognize Mars by its reddish color. But the real trick to spotting planets was discovered thousands of years ago. Stars create the same patterns, or constellations, night after night, while planets slowly wander among the constellations. In fact, the word planet comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “wanderer.” You won’t see a planet like Mars wandering in a single night, but as weeks and months go by you’ll see that it moves from one constellation to another.
Ancient people didn’t know why planets wander. Their strange motion made planets seem powerful, which is why they were named for ancient gods. Today we know that planets wander because they orbit the Sun, while stars stay in fixed patterns because they are so much farther away.
In fact, there’s an even more basic difference between stars and planets. Stars are gigantic balls of hot, glowing gas, like our own Sun. Planets are worlds that orbit stars just as Earth and Mars orbit the Sun. Many stars have planets, so the planets we see in the night sky are only a few of the countless planets in the universe.
Dogs in Space
The real dog Max (who the dog in Max Goes to Mars is based on) has never been to space, but other dogs have. A Russian dog named Laika was the first. In fact, she was the first living creature sent into space.
Laika was launched into Earth orbit aboard a ship called Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Her trip provided valuable data that later helped people and other animals survive in space. Sadly, her own ship was not designed for a return trip home, and she died in space.
Twelve other Russian dogs made space launches and eight of them returned safely. The first dogs to survive a space flight were Belka and Strelka, who orbited Earth for a day on August 19, 1960. Strelka later had puppies. In an early example of space exploration helping to foster peace, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev gave one of Strelka’s puppies to the family of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The last dogs in space – at least so far – were Verterok and Ugolyok. In 1966, they spent 22 days in space before returning home.
The United States never sent dogs into space but did send monkeys and chimpanzees. The first chimp, named Ham, made a short flight into space on January 31, 1961. He survived the flight and lived in zoos for the rest of his life.
How Far Is Mars?
The vast distances between the planets are easier to think about if we use a scale model of the solar system, like Voyage, located outside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which shows the solar system at one ten-billionth of its actual size. (Learn more about Voyage and the scale of space at www.BigKidScience.com/Voyage.)
If you want some real numbers, here they are: The Moon is about 380,000 kilometers (235,000 miles) from Earth. The distance from Earth to Mars ranges between about 56 and 400 million kilometers (35 and 250 million miles), depending on where the two planets are located in their orbits.
The Names of Mars
Mars was named for the mythological god of war more than 3,000 years ago, perhaps because its color reminded people of blood. Different people of the ancient Middle East had different names for the god of war, and each gave this name to the planet. The Babylonians called it Nergal, the Greeks called it Ares, and the Romans gave it the name Mars.
People in other parts of the world had different ideas about Mars. In India, Mars was known as Mangala and associated with a six-headed, warlike god. It was the “great star” to the Pawnee people of North America. The Chinese called the Mars the “fire planet’ or Ying huo, which translates roughly as “sparkling deluder.” Even today Mars has many names in different languages.
Did you know that Mars has a day, a month, and a city named for it? Tuesday is “Mars day,” as you can tell if you know how to say Tuesday in Spanish (Martes), French (Mardi), or Italian (Marte). We get the English Tuesday from the ancient Norse god of war, who was named Tiw. The month named for Mars is probably obvious: March. The city is Cairo, capital of Egypt, whose name comes from an ancient Arabic name for Mars.
Have you ever wondered why people often talk about Martians but rarely talk about, say, Venusians or Jupiterians? It started with blurry images of Mars seen through telescopes more than 100 years ago.
In 1877, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he saw straight lines on Mars. He called them canali, meaning “channels.” However, the word was translated into English as canals, which made people think of artificial waterways. In 1894, an American astronomer named Percival Lowell opened his own observatory to study the canals of Mars. The Lowell Observatory is still used for astronomical research. You can visit it in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Lowell made detailed maps of Martian canals, imagining that they were built by an old civilization to transport precious water on a dying planet. H. G. Wells used this idea when he wrote about Martians invading Earth in his novel The War of the Worlds.
Of course, we now know that Lowell’s idea had a major problem: The canals don’t really exist. So what was he seeing? Remember that Lowell was looking by eye at blurry telescopic images of Mars. Perhaps he allowed his mind to fill in straight lines along blurry boundaries of light and dark geographical regions.