August 6th, 2012
12:53 PM ET

What's our fascination with Mars?

When you look up basic information on Mars on NASA's website, in the field for the name of the discoverer, it says "known by the ancients." Unlike Neptune, and the no-longer-a-planet Pluto, Mars has always figured in to the way we understand our solar system.

If you know what to look for in the sky, the reason why is obvious enough: Mars is visible to the naked eye, and clearly red. It's also close: our ability to see it so easily attests to the relative nearness of the planet.

Pop culture is loaded with references to Mars: witness movies with titles like "Mission to Mars" (2000) and "Red Planet," (2000) documentaries like NOVA's "Can we make it to Mars?", not to mention numerous science fiction stories like Ray Bradbury's 1950s "The Martian Chronicles," and non-fiction books like "The Case for Mars," and of course "Packing for Mars," which both explore what it would take to send not just a robotic analog for humanity, but actual living, breathing people.

Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars”, finds her fascination with Mars is a lot more personal.

"I picture myself in the landscape, sitting on a rock in this or that panorama shot, and what that would feel like, be like. The more real the images become, the more it fascinates me."

At 1:31 a.m. eastern on Monday, August 6, our fascination with Mars continued when the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, or Curiosity) landed on the Red Planet. It's not the first rover humans have sent to Mars: NASA has been sending robotic emissaries since Viking 1 landed in 1976.

NASA's rover Curiosity lands on Mars

Because Curiosity is the latest in a long line of Mars-bound spacecraft, this mission begs the question: Why do we seem to love it so much?

@CNNLightyears posed the question to many asking people why they love Mars. The responses on Twitter and Facebook varied in details, but the gist of them was effectively the same.

Cindie Hurley, a space enthusiast, sums it up via Facebook: "It's the 'new world' of space... If the moon was an offshore island, well Mars is that distant's only the FIRST step in a much bigger journey. If we can get there, then maybe, just maybe, we can get to the next destination."

Mars, even with its inhospitable atmosphere and barren landscape, is the closest analog to Earth that we're aware of.

James Wray, an assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech who collaborated on Curiosity's SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) suite of instruments, tells us, "It's the most "Earth-like" planet we've yet found, with mountains, canyons, dry river valleys, rocks, sand and dust of compositions and appearances not unlike those here at home. The surface is cold, but at times no colder than Earth's polar regions."

"There is water in the clouds and polar ice caps, and a day is only slightly longer than Earth's 24 hours. Every day is sunny (well, except during major dust storms), with pale rose-colored skies instead of the Moon's harsh black," he says.

Basically, life could survive on Mars but we couldn't survive on, say, Venus, the other nearest planet to Earth. Even though Venus has both an atmosphere and is about the same size as Earth, the air is toxic and the pressure at the surface is such that we'd be crushed, a fate met by some early Russian robotic explorers. Oh, and it's hot enough to melt lead on the surface.

Mars could be our next home. And it's important to us to find out as much as we can about it, not just to further our knowledge of the formation of our solar system and our own planet, but to prepare ourselves to become a multi-planet species, as SpaceX's Elon Musk has hoped for aloud, in interviews.

Mary Roach concludes, "...Mars is close enough to feel reachable, yet far enough away to seem utterly foreign and exotic and mysterious."

Check out Mars complete coverage on @CNNLightYears

Do you love Mars? Tell us why in the comments.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
soundoff (508 Responses)
  1. katesisco

    Since the Mars team has claimed a big 'surprise' coming one might guess it is either H2O or evidence of respiration but that would require a measurement of prior usage not available. If microbial life was identified on Mars consuming O2, it would mean that a source of O2 was available at what ever rate the microbes consumed ox if indeed they were consuming ox. instead of carbon di or methane. Extrapolating on this would be duplicating conditions or capturing the o2 thus depriving the microbes of the source hence killing the life that has held out for 4 billion years, to allow humans a source of ox on the planets surface. Of course, if this o2 or any other gas was generated by a compressive wave from outside the planetary body, then it would not be sustainable.

    November 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  2. katesisco

    Nov 24, 2012 and NASA has said 'surprise' is coming. Well, here on E science has already found microbes in the deep sea bed that are improbably ancient. They are alive but just barely; science says they may only be alive on a period of millions of years. Here:

    What this says is that life existing on Mars would be comparable.

    November 24, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  3. Pepinium

    Reading a lot of these posts is really depressing and brings home the tragedy that a moron's vote is worth the same as that of an educated person. Hopefully the space program will advance fast enough to allow us to colonize other places where societies will be developed selectively and do not have to carry the dead weight that we do here on Earth. That is what Asimov predicted, that the real accomplishments of the human species would not be realized until that necessary step in our evolution can be taken. Beam Me Up Scotty !! and never never never bring me back to this cesspool of a planet !!!

    August 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  4. Marvin the Martian

    Curiosity killed the cat. When the curious eventually bring germy samples back to Earth, get ready for a plague. All heck will break loose, and then they will declare Martian Law. Leave it to humans to krap and leave, and then go looking for a new place to krap up. Just like tourists.

    August 10, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  5. spacematters

    Here's the thing, for anyone who wishes to think beyond your lifetime, or your offspring's lifetime.
    Besides running out of fuel, besides global warming, our Sun will one day go out. Yes, it will be a very, very long time from now, but a civilization needs time to get to a technological level to be able to escape off-planet and learn to adapt to another planetary environment. If we put it off and put it off and put it off, you know how the saying goes – that, hindsight, time flies – then one day will come a very, very long time from now when we'll be thinking why didn't our ancient ancestors think of the future? Why didn't we see other planets in other solar systems as our next home? Instead, the Sun will go out and Humanity with it. So, whatever you think, consider that to get to where we need to be when that happens, we need to take the baby steps we have been taking to get there. We'd still be living on a flat planet and at the center of the solar system had it not been for the great thinkers. We could be behind in the timeline necessary to escape from here if we do not explore the solar system and beyond, and tinker with things, and study things. Yes, on the surface, it seems like we're just a bunch of kids exploring for the sake of exploring, but at the core of it is our survival as a species. If you know 100% that your home will be destroyed in x number of years, would you not prepare to find a new home? Learning Mars, to eventually live on Mars, is a step. By that point, we will locate a new planet in a new solar system that could sustain us. Then, we'll be driven to develop technology to get us there. It has to happen.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Fr33th1nk3r

    "What's our fascination with Mars?"
    Well, for starters, most geologists estimate we have anywhere from 1 to 2 centuries worth of petroelum left before our societies literally run out of gas. And that is at our current population, not the 300% increase in population expected within the next century.
    The world's population passed the point where we don't have enough room to feed all those people decades ago. Global warming is making the climate more unstable and causing droughts and major changes in the world's ecosystems, which in turn causes more starvation and hunger. WHich in turn creates more wars and sectarian confilcts.
    Stephen Hawking was absolutely correct in his assessment, that humanity needs to get off this rock soon, or we are on the fast track to extinction.

    August 7, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  7. SwimLikeAFish

    As a more expedient use of NASA money, commenters like to focus on 'feeding hungry children' as if that's our biggest problem in the U.S. It's nowhere near our biggest problem. So the pro-Mars groups focus on that issue and win the argument. HERE ARE OUR BIGGER PROBLEMS THAT COULD USE THE MONEY: a) Muslim extremists that think it's their God-given duty to kill non-Muslims and persecute women; b) Global Climate Change that wreaking havoc on our ecosystem and could threaten life as we know it; c) Depletion of fossil fuels and lack of alternatives to power our lives, heat our homes, etc. d) Water, water, water

    August 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Shepard

    I'm eagerly awaiting the moment when Curiosity finds a Prothean beacon. 🙂

    August 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
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