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Charles Cockell, a Mars biologist at the British Antarctic Survey
in Cambridgeshire, UK, says it dates back long before telescopes.
"The fascination has been there for centuries," he says. "Ancients
saw this thing that was slightly
different in the sky - it appeared to wander across the sky and
had a red colour."
In Assyria, Mars was known as the "shedder of blood" while the Vikings,
Greeks and Romans called it the God of War. It is easy to imagine
why the planet looked to ancient civilisations like a drop of blood
in the sky.
It's the very essence of mankind. Are we alone - is this all that
We now know that Mars is red due to oxidised iron materials - rust
- in the surface rocks. And its elliptical orbit means it is only
close to Earth for a couple of months in any two-year stretch before
swinging away again.
The advent of telescopes brought more myths about Mars. Italian
astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced the discovery of "canali"
(channels) on Mars in 1877.
It fuelled speculation that he had seen artificial canals built
by an intelligent civilisation, inspiring a host of science fiction
By the early 1960s, when a robotic space craft first visited Mars,
the idea of some form of extra-terrestrial life had seeped into
the human consciousness.
It came as a shock when the first close-up images of the planet
revealed not lush vegetation but a barren, hostile wilderness.
Since then Mars has been visited by more space craft than any other
planet providing a tantalising glimpse of a world that could once
have had water, oceans and life.
Could these gullies have been carved by running water? However,
the chances are that if there ever was primitive life on Mars, there
will only be fossils left for space probes and future astronauts
But, as Bo Maxwell, of the UK branch of the Mars Society, puts it,
the thought doesn't quell the human urge to explore.
"It's the very essence of mankind," he says. "Are we alone - is
this all that we are?"
Many writers have dreamed of a day when Mars becomes our future
- a place with water and sunlight where we can leave the Earth behind.
But there is another possibility, says Mark Adler of the US space
"Earth and Mars exchanged material in the early days when life was
forming on Earth," says the deputy mission manager for the Mars
"Was Mars part of our past? Maybe we are the Martians