Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

The dusty red planet has fascinated us for centuries. Even as we learn more, its mysteries keep us in suspense.

Early, blurry views of Mars inspired stories of canal-building aliens.
Photograph by E.C. Slipher, LOWELL OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

It’s a warm night in mid-October, and I’m winding my way up to the University of Virginia’s McCormick Observatory on a quest to solve an abiding mystery: Why are Earthlings so dang obsessed with Mars?

The observatory’s hilltop dome is open, etching a glowing amber crescent into the autumn darkness. Inside stands a telescope that will help me see Mars as it appeared to observers more than a century ago, when eager astronomers used this instrument in 1877 to confirm the discovery of the two tiny Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos.

Tonight UVA astronomer Ed Murphy has made a special trip up to the observatory, which is closed to the public because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The whirling dance of orbital dynamics has put Mars at its biggest and brightest in the sky right now, and Murphy calculated that this would be the best time to see it from central Virginia, where the turbulent air can sometimes complicate nighttime sky-gazing.

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