After the discoveries of astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, a passion for fantasies of life on Mars flowed among the people who had mistaken his observations of canali, or natural etchings in the surface, for indications of Martian-made canals. Few were gripped as completely by the idea as Percival Lowell.
Lowell, an American astronomer, was taken in by "Mars Mania" like everyone else. After hearing about the canali on Mars, Lowell and his telescope became joined at the eye. Lowell reasoned that Martians had constructed the canals to carry water from the polar ice caps in an effort to preserve their existence in the face of a dry desert planet. The changing sizes of the ice caps and the dark surface features on Mars made sense. Water must be carried from the ice caps through the canals to warmer regions nearer Mars's equator. The supply of water made vegetation grow, and this explained the growing sizes of the dark areas.
Photos. The north (on the left) and south (on the right) poles of Mars as seen from Viking Orbiter; the north pole is composed of frozen water, the south of frozen carbon dioxide. Both courtesy of NASA, JPL.
Intensely fascinated by canals on Mars, Lowell built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894. He claimed to have observed more than 160 canals on Mars.
By the 1930s, astronomers resisted the idea of life on Mars. The big telescope on Mt.Wilson could not find any signs of canals on Mars. But only astronomers discounted the idea that there was no life on Mars. In other people's minds, the idea of Martians still persisted.
Mission to Mars. An educational site created for the ThinkQuest contest.