Like any long-distance relationship, our love affair with Mars has had its ups and downs. The planet’s red tint made it a distinctive – but ominous – nighttime presence to the ancients, who gazed at it with the naked eye. Later we got closer views through telescopes, but the planet still remained a mystery, ripe for speculation.
A century ago, the American astronomer Percival Lowell mistakenly interpreted Martian surface features as canals that intelligent beings had built to distribute water across a dry world. This was just one example in a long history of imagining life on Mars, from H G Wells portraying Martians as bloodthirsty invaders of Earth, to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kim Stanley Robinson and others wondering how we could visit Mars and meet the Martians.
The latest entry in this long tradition is the sci-fi flick The Martian, released on October 2. Directed by Ridley Scott and based on Andy Weir’s self-published novel, it tells the story of an astronaut (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars. Both book and movie try to be as true to the science as possible – and, in fact, the science and the fiction around missions to Mars are rapidly converging.
NASA’s Curiosity rover and other instruments have shown that Mars once had oceans of liquid water, a tantalizing hint that life was once present.
And now NASA has just reported the electrifying news that liquid water is flowing on Mars.