Astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan once said that Mars “has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we’ve projected our earthly hopes and fears.” For centuries, we’ve pondered whether the mysterious Red Planet could harbor life–and whether we can colonize it. In the last decade, as we moved from telescopes and spaceships to rovers actively exploring the planet’s surface, we’ve begun to answer those questions and more.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in 2004; Curiosity followed in 2012. All three have provided startling and optimistic discoveries about Mars’ environment–but science fiction authors got there first. Back when all we knew about Mars came from theories and fiction, sci-fi greats including Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and Kim Stanley Robinson dared to envision the impossible on Mars’ surface. And now it’s coming true! For the 10th anniversary of the first Mars rover landing, here are five vital things we now know about Mars that our favorite authors knew first.
1. Red Mars
Water on Mars
In its first year on the Red Planet, Curiosity discovered not only proof that water once ran across Mars’ surface, but that it did so through an interconnected network of fast-moving streams. In his Mars trilogy in the ’90s, author Kim Stanley Robinson took on Sagan’s theory that Mars could be terraformed; specifically, in Robinson’s vision, humans detonate nuclear warheads beneath the permafrost to release the water stored there. Perhaps not surprisingly, this oversized attempt at dowsing unleashes a devastating flood. By the third book, “Blue Mars,” liquid water can exist on Mars’ surface again, in the form of rivers and seas.
Due to a mistranslation of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s notes, which resulted in identifying Martian water channels as canals (i.e., artificially constructed), early thinkers believed that Mars was a dying planet. Going against the popular opinion of the time in 1917, Edgar Rice Burroughs took a then-shaky hypothesis–that Mars had breathable air–and ran with it in his John Carter of Mars series. We’ve since learned that Mars’ environment at one point included not only oxygen, but also hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and the other building blocks for life.
Spirit discovered that all of the planet’s dust is magnetic due to high levels of titanium; one magnet could dispel all of the dust in a given space. How interesting, then, that “Fahrenheit 451” author Ray Bradbury had this same brainstorm in 1950: One of the stories in his collection “The Martian Chronicles” features a Martian housewife who uses magnetic dust to clean her home.
Robinson has praised Philip K. Dick’s 1964 masterpiece as “one of the best Martian novels” for his commentary on colonialism and racism: On PKD’s Mars, humans take the land away from the Bleekmen, aboriginal natives. It may be too early to extrapolate Curiosity’s latest discovery, that Mars craters could have supported microbial life, out to the Bleekmen. Nevertheless, Dick’s vision is one of the most convincing takes on ancient, extraterrestrial life.
Potential for colonization
Perhaps the most valuable Mars discovery came from Curiosity in 2013: The rover calculated that the radiation levels on Mars are only about as high as what the astronauts are exposed to on the International Space Station. That means that astronauts–and, eventually, colonists–could endure a long-term trip to Mars to start erecting settlements.
Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal 1961 novel tracks a human Martian as he leaves his birth planet to interact with–and eventually transform–Earth society. See also Frederik Pohl’s Nebula Award-winning 1976 novel “Man Plus” for a probing critique of humans’ tendencies to adapt their environments, rather than the other way around.
It bears mentioning that in many of these Mars novels, after several generations the human colonies come to resent Earth controlling them and revolt. Considering that mankind has a healthy history of doing the same on its own planet, this could be another prediction that proves true.