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Explore Alliance Presents: How Do You KNOW? – Episode #20: 'The Dying Planet'

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Mars - The Dying Planet

Astronomers have been exploring Mars with telescopes for four centuries, and the fascination of the red planet with its changing seasons, clouds, surface variations, and ice caps led many to conclude that the planet was a smaller version of Earth, perhaps supporting life.

In 1877, during a great opposition of Mars, important breakthroughs in optical telescopes had been achieved which allowed unprecedented observations of Mars revealing greater detail of the variations of the planet's surface. Of note, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli observed a dense network of linear structures on the surface of Mars which he called "canali". 

In Italian "canali" is defined as "channels" but the term was mistranslated into English as "canals". This error in translation added strength to the ideas of Percival Lowell, an amateur astronomer and businessman, who armed with one of the largest telescopes in the world was convinced that intelligent life existed on Mars.

In Lowell's mind (and in popular culture at the time) only intelligent beings could have built the structures in order to survive on a dying planet by diverting water in canals from the ice caps to their civilizations. 

In this episode of 'How Do You KNOW?', Dr. Barth takes us through the history of the search for life on Mars - "The Dying Planet".