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An Oxford Companion to Mars

By Alice Northover

With our announcement of Place of the Year 2012 and NASA’s announcement at the American Geophysical Union on December 3rd, and a week full of posts about Mars, what better way to wrap things up than by pulling together information from across Oxford’s resources to provide some background on the Red Planet.

Of Gods and Men

While the planet been subject to study since humans first gazed into the sky (as one of the few planets visible to the naked eye), the English name for the planet comes from the Roman god of war, Mars. Latin marks many astronomical names, such as mare, which refers to the dark areas of the Moon or Mars. Sol (Latin for Sun) refers to a solar day on Mars (roughly 24 hours and 39 minutes). However, be careful not to mix up martialists, those born under its astrological influence, with martians, aliens from the planet. (Not that it always had that meaning.) The Romans, as usual, stole their planet-naming scheme from the Greeks. Ares, the Greek god of war, provides a pre-fix for a number of Mars-related words: areocentric, areˈographer, areo-graphic, are-ography, are’ology. Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos (those mythological names again!). It’s important to remember that these names reveal how people related, and continue to relate to the sky.

The Martian People

What has fueled our fascination with Mars all these years? Everyone from scientists to poets has kept it in our thoughts over the centuries.

Almost all ancient world cultures closely observed its pattern through the sky, although this was often a confluence of gods, astrology, and astronomy. Aristotle and Ptolemy were among the ancient theorists. The Renaissance saw new discoveries from Brahe, Kepler, and Cassini among others, made possible by the telescope and advanced mathematics, as we moved from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the universe (although Mars’s eccentric orbit caused considerable annoyance).

In the 19th century, Giovanni Schiaparelli was the first to create a detailed map of Mars. Percival Lowell (1855-1916), who saw himself as a successor to Schiaparelli, searched for signs of intelligent life on Mars and made numerous invaluable observations, even if many of his speculations have now been dismissed. Moreover, his legacy, the Lowell Observatory, continues to watch the stars. Astronomer Richard Proctor (1837-88) researched the rotation period of Mars and rightly dismissed the canals as an optical effect.

Scientific breakthroughs naturally inspired artists throughout the ages. In the Renaissance, writers struggled to make sense of a new vision of the universe; in the 19th century, science fiction emerged and it has grown and adapted to every medium in the 20th. H.G. Wells (1866–1946) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) built on scientific discoveries with novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Princess of Mars. In 1938, Orson Welles’s (1915-1985) famous dramatization of The War of the Worlds led many Americans to believe that Martians had invaded New Jersey. The story was adapted to film in 1953 and again in 2005. One of the masterpieces of Soviet cinema, Aelita, is based on an Aleksey Tolstoy science fiction novel. In television, Mars has provided the backdrop or villians for numerous programs, such as the Ice Warriors, one of the great monsters of Doctor Who. UFOs still capture the imagination.

The planet has also provided ideas to musicians as diverse as Gustav Holst and David Bowie, and populated the night skies of artists. And we cannot forget those with the surname of Mars, most of all confectioners Frank C. Mars and Edward Forrest Mars (1904-1999). Mars, Inc. and the famous Mars Bar are often associated with the planet although the origin of their names is distinctly earthly.

A History of Martian Space Exploration

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS), and the European Space Agency (ESA) have all been involved in the exploration of Mars, from probes to rovers. In 1962 the Soviet space program began lanching Mars probes, the last of which was Mars 96 (in 1996). In 1975, NASA sent two Viking probes to Mars. In 1996, NASA begins a series of missions called Mars Surveyor and has sent numerous probes, rovers, and more to the Red Planet in the past 20 years, including the Mars Pathfinder (and the rover Sojourner), the Mars Odyssey, the Mars Global Surveyor, and two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

But space exploration is not without its setbacks. The Soviet Union failed in its Phobos missions in 1988, and NASA lost communication with the probe New Millennium Deep Space-2 in 1999. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe continues to provide valuable information although the Beagle 2 lander was lost.

The Mars Curiosity Rover landed successfully at 10:32 pm PST on 5 August 2012. But is it physically possible for us to send a human there? And how long would it take to get there and back?


There has been much speculation about the geography and geology of Mars, with new theories arising as our technology improves.

Mars is a terrestrial planet with numerous montes (mountain ranges), valles (valleys) , rima (long narrow furrows), and cave systems. Its most famous geographical features are the Olympus Mons (giant volcano) and Valles Marineris (system of canyons).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, people speculated about Martian canals, faint markings of the surface that once led people to believe the planet had flowing, liquid water. (The word canal actually comes from a mis-translation Giovanni Schiaparelli’s work; canali (Italian) actually means channels.) Wrinkle ridges further added to the mystery.

Without a thick atmosphere to burn up descending asteroids, Mars is pockmarked with impact craters. The Mars Curiosity Rover landed in the Gale Crater, just south of Mars’s equator. Previous rovers have attempted to measure Marsquakes, the Martian equivalent of earthquakes, as the Red Planet may have its own system of tectonic plates.

The Long Arm of Outer Space Law

In space, no one can hear you scream, but that doesn’t stop the lawsuit.

It began with the UN Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space in 1963 and the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies in 1967 because of the need to regulate competing claims on the shared space of outer space.

Who can claim land or natural resources in space? What are the health and safety provisions for astronauts? Under whose jurisdiction do they fall? Are you liable when your telecommunications satellite scrapes the International Space Station? Exactly who’s in charge of the space up there anyway? These are only a few of the questions legal scholars are grappling with.

What would we call our Red Planet lawmen? Marshals of course — although martial and marshal aren’t actually related. And be sure to check back tomorrow to hear from our space lawyer!

Recommended resources from A Dictionary of Space Exploration

The Mars Climate Database
The Mars Exploration Program
Views of the Solar System
Space Ref

And remember: Stay curious!

Alice Northover joined Oxford University Press as Social Media Manager in January 2012. She is editor of the OUPblog, constant tweeter @OUPAcademic, daily Facebooker at Oxford Academic, and Google Plus updater of Oxford Academic, amongst other things. You can learn more about her bizarre habits on the blog.

Oxford University Press’ annual Place of the Year, celebrating geographically interesting and inspiring places, coincides with its publication of Atlas of the World – the only atlas published annually — now in its 19th Edition. The Nineteenth Edition includes new census information, dozens of city maps, gorgeous satellite images of Earth, and a geographical glossary, once again offering exceptional value at a reasonable price. Read previous blog posts in our Place of the Year series.

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Recent Comments

  1. Thomas

    Oh yeah, the famous Latin names ending in -os (SG.Nom) ..
    Since the moons of Mars are relatively recently discovered, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a lot of Latin involved in those names.

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