When an Italian astronomer claimed he saw canali on Mars, English speaking people thought of canals, a word which implied engineering works built by a race of intelligent beings to transport water from Mars's polar ice caps to the drier regions of this desert planet.
Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli was director of the Milan Observatory and an esteemed Italian astronomer. He is responsible for a long lasting romance with Mars and the possibility of life on that planet. In 1877, Schiaparelli looked through his telescope and saw a brilliant red blob of light in the sky. Schiaparelli probably heard the symphony orchestra playing behind him as he saw Mars for the first time. The planet captured Schiaparelli's attention because he could see surface detail. Most of the time, an observer cannot see clearly the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli, however was looking at the time of a "favorable opposition." A favorable opposition is when two planets have the minimum possible distance between them. Observing Mars during this ideal period when Mars became unusually clear and distinct, he saw straight lines crisscrossing Mars's red surface.
Photos. On the left, a photograph of Mars from an Earth-bound telescope; in contrast, on the right, a picture from the Viking missions of the mid-1970's, which included orbiters that photographed nearly all of the planet in great detail. Both courtesy of NASA.
Schiaparelli used the word canali to describe the markings. In Italian, canali means channels or grooves, something completely natural. English speaking people, hearing the word canali, thought canals, structures that connect two larger bodies of water. If there were canals on Mars, they must have been engineered and built by a race of intelligent beings on Mars. The West was electrified by the possibility. A rush of speculation set the world thinking about aliens on Mars. This tiny little planet gave our world dreams--and nightmares--about Martians.
Photos. On the left, a photograph of Mars. On the right, a picture of ancient tributary channels on Mars. Both courtesy of NASA.
Mission to Mars. An educational site created for the ThinkQuest contest.