MY MARTIAN LOVE AFFAIR; Volcanoes the Size of France. Canyons 2,000 Miles Long and, Yes, Quite Possibly Alien Life. in an Enthralling New Book, the Mail's Science Editor Shares His Passion for the Red Planet

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL HANLON

WHEN I was a small boy, I assumed that one day I would voyage to Mars. This was the great age of astronautics, when chisel-jawed, American heroes were blasting off to the Moon atop rocketships the size of skyscrapers.

From these tentative small steps, the magazines and newspapers told us, would come a new age of human exploration. By the dawn of the then-distant 21st century, surely it would be possible for ordinary men and women to take a visit not only to the Moon but to Mars, the Red Planet, on board great space liners.

And what a destination. Mars is a planet of extremes: huge canyons 2,000 miles long and miles deep. Volcanoes the size of France.

Shimmering ice caps and vast, rust-coloured deserts. Even though it is now sadly clear I will never go, to this day, my fascination with this extraordinary planet continues unabated.

Mars has always teetered on a line between fantasy and science. A hundred years ago, we thought it was home to little green men. For the past century, scientists have argued whether the Red Planet might be home to lichens or bacteria, or whether it is as dead as the Moon.

In an attempt to answer these questions, I have written a book on Mars, separating what we know about the Fourth Planet from what we think we know.

Can Mars really support life?

Could people one day live there? Will we ever go?

Are our ideas about the Red Planet science? Or just science fiction?

My closest encounter with Mars happened late last summer, when I spent a couple of hours peering through the very machine that first saw apparent signs of alien life on the planet more than a century ago.

This was the Clark Telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, commissioned by an eccentric Bostonian millionaire and scientist, Percival Lowell.

In the 1890s, he spent night after night looking through it and thought he spotted something extraordinary: a network of lines, crisscrossing the face of Mars.

Lowell was not the first to see these lines - the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli had noted them more than 20 years earlier - but he was the first to draw the staggering conclusion that intelligent beings had built a network of canals to take melted snow from the poles to the arid tropics.

He wrote three books about his Martians - books that have coloured the way we have thought about this planet ever since.

Now, a century after Lowell, Mars fever has returned.

A small flotilla of spacecraft is currently orbiting the Red Planet and two six-wheeled robots are driving miles across its arid plains.

The extraordinary pictures that have been sent back are of a world that can appear eerily familiar (much of Mars resembles Arizona) yet disconcertingly alien.

But back in the early 20th century, Mars was just a penny-sized disc in the eyepiece of even the biggest telescopes.

In the years 1890-1910, the most august journals ran articles about Lowell's Martians. The writer H. G, Wells had already caught the Mars bug and in 1895 penned the greatest work of science fiction to date - The War Of The Worlds, in which an armada of belligerent Martians invade Surrey.

With the coming of the first space probes in the 1960s, it seemed that Lowell's Mars was dead; no little green men, no canal-builders, no warriors or princesses, nor any of the other fantasies that fuelled science fiction in the four decades after Lowell's death.

BUT, instead, we were confronted with a world of sand, endless plains of dust, and craters - just like our Moon.

The orbiting Mariner probes of the 1960s and 70s measured the Martian atmosphere and found it wanting.

An astronaut venturing forth on to its surface, unprotected by a space suit, would simultaneously freeze, boil and suffocate as his blood bubbled in the thin, frigid, carbon dioxide air. …