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This Week In History

Life on Mars. August 6, 1996.

In August 6, 1996 a team of researchers announced that the meteorite ALH84001, discovered in the Allan Hills of Antarctica, may contain evidence of life on Mars, but further tests were inconclusive.

To date, no proof has been found of past or present life on Mars. Cumulative evidence shows that during the ancient Noachian time period, the surface environment of Mars had liquid water and may have been habitable for microorganisms. The existence of habitable conditions does not necessarily indicate the presence of life.

Scientific searches for evidence of life began in the 19th century, and continue today via telescopic investigations and deployed probes. While early work focused on phenomenology and bordered on fantasy, the modern scientific inquiry has emphasized the search for water, chemical biosignatures in the soil and rocks at the planet’s surface, and biomarker gases in the atmosphere.

Mars is of particular interest for the study of the origins of life because of its similarity to the early Earth. This is especially so since Mars has a cold climate and lacks plate tectonics or continental drift, so has remained almost unchanged since the end of the Hesperian period. At least two thirds of Mars’ surface is more than 3.5 billion years old, and Mars may thus hold the best record of the prebiotic conditions leading to life, even if life does not or has never existed there, which might have started developing as early as 4.48 billion years ago.

In classical antiquity, the seven classical planets or seven sacred luminaires were (are) the seven moving astronomical objects in the sky visible to the naked eye: the MoonMercuryVenus, the SunMarsJupiter, and Saturn. These were known to the ancients, who variously named them after gods and goddesses. Mars is visibly reddish, which apparently resembled to the Babylonians´ Nergal, a god of war and fire.

The Greeks likely adapted this Babylonian nomenclature, calling the planet Pyroeis (Greek for “fiery”), identified with Ares. The Romans then adapted the Greek names to their own pantheon, naming the fourth planet after their god of war, Mars.

Under the influence of Greek culture, Mars was identified with the Greek god Ares, whose myths were reinterpreted in Roman literature and art under the name of Mars. But the character and dignity of Mars differed in fundamental ways from that of his Greek and Babylonian counterpart, who were often treated with contempt and revulsion in Greek literature.

Although Ares was viewed primarily as a destructive and destabilizing force, Mars represented military power as a way to secure peace, and was a father (pater) of the Roman people. In the mythic genealogy and founding myths of Rome, Mars was the father of Romulus and Remus with Rhea Silvia. His love affair with Venus symbolically reconciled the two different traditions of Rome’s founding; Venus was the divine mother of the hero Aeneas, celebrated as the Trojan refugee who “founded” Rome several generations before Romulus laid out the city walls.

The importance of Mars in establishing religious and cultural identity within the Roman Empire is indicated by the vast number of inscriptions identifying him with a local deity, particularly in the Western provinces.

The union of Venus and Mars held greater appeal for poets and philosophers, and the couple were a frequent subject of art. In Greek myth, the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite had been exposed to ridicule when her husband Hephaestus (whose Roman equivalent was Vulcan) caught them in the act by means of a magical snare. Although not originally part of the Roman tradition, in 217 BCE Venus and Mars were presented as a complementary pair in the lectisternium, a public banquet at which images of twelve major gods of the Roman state were presented on couches as if present and participating.

Europeans continued the Roman names of the planet, using the names of Roman deities in the discovery of new planets, such as Neptune and Uranus as well as the dwarf planet Pluto, or Ceres.

 

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