Mars Globes

One of the places my family and I visited during our July travels was Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was where Percival Lowell, a former US ambassador to Korea, set up shop in the late nineteenth century to observe the planet Mars and search for the elusive Planet X. One thing that captivated Lowell about Mars were the linear features crisscrossing the planet. The more he observed them, the more he became convinced they were canals built by intelligent beings. Over the years, Lowell would make many maps of Mars and publish essays detailing how the red planet must be an abode of life. Lowell also made globes.

Martian globe on display at Lowell Observatory

As it turns out, Lowell’s canals do not exist. They seem to be the result of some optical phenomena going on within the telescope itself enhanced by wishful thinking. It’s easy to imagine Lowell gazing up at Mars from his chair in Flagstaff, imagining a dying desert world with intelligent Martians hanging on through their ingenuity, digging canals to bring water from the polar caps to arable farm land in the equatorial regions. These ideas would go on to inspire writers like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury. Even if Lowell’s observations did not prove correct, he succeeded in making Mars a place in people’s imagination that we could visit.

As a young reader, I fell in love with the canal-lined Mars of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When visiting Lowell Observatory, I always thought a Martian canal globe would be a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the gift shop. What’s more, they don’t sell them much of anywhere. Most Mars globes available today show the Mars we’ve mapped via orbiting probes. These are great globes and I’d love one of those, too, but they don’t capture the imagination that stirred me in my earliest days of reading science fiction. I did see that a master globe maker recreated a canal globe a while back and made them available for sale, but I also saw that he charged far more than I could afford. What’s more, when I looked again after visiting Lowell, I couldn’t find them anymore.

Of course, I’m not only a science fiction fan and a professional scientist, I’m a steampunk. If there’s one thing a steampunk knows it’s that when something isn’t available, you just have to go out and make it. My wife and I discussed approaches and I did some searching on the web. I already knew that several images of Lowell’s maps were available online. I found software that would convert rectangular maps to “map gores,” the strips used to make globes. With the power of Adobe Photoshop, I could resize those gores to any ball I wanted. So, I set out to make my own globe. Since this was the first time I’d ever tried something like this, I decided to make a prototype before making a nice one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The prototype wasn’t perfect. Despite measuring the ball I used for a form, I sized the gores just a little too small. This could have been a little bit of rounding error from several sources. Also, it took some tries to figure out how to get the gores on smoothly. I mostly figured it out, and I think some better tools would help. Despite that, I think the prototype globe turned out much better than I had any right to expect. In fact, the flaws actually add to the antique look of the globe.

At this point, I’m working on acquiring some better tools and a nice stand for the final globe. Who knows exactly what I’ll do with my new globe-making skills. If a steampunk event shows interest, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. Given that the globes aren’t generally available, I might consider making a few for sale, as long as I confirm that I’m not violating any rights by using the old maps and I feel my skills are up to the task.

What I do know is that the globes I make for myself will serve as an inspiration. I look at the globe and dream of Mars as it could have been. When astronauts visit Mars in my novel The Solar Sea, they wax poetic about the old visions of Mars even as they see its real wonders. Of course, Lowell’s crypt next to the dome where he observed Mars was an inspiration for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. A part of me would like to think of Lowell’s spirit walking a canal-laced Mars, much as scientists who died did in Camille Flammarion’s novel Urania. As I look around the globe, I see that Lowell named one of the canals, Draco, a name shared with the leader of my Scarlet Order vampires. Maybe there’s a story out there about the Scarlet Order paying a visit to Mars.

Mars, Up Close and Personal

On May 30, 2016, the planet Mars reached the point in its orbit where it’s closest to Earth. The two planets were 46.8 million miles apart. In about a week, Mars will grow noticeably fainter as the planets move away from each other. Earlier this week, on the night of June 6, I took advantage of the close approach to get a nice image of the red planet.

Mars - June 6, 2016

Between work, travel, and weather, this was my first opportunity to take advantage of the close approach with my 8-inch Celestron Telescope. The new image is noticeably improved over my February 11 photo taken with the same telescope and camera and displayed at the same scale:

Mars-160211-Color

This really illustrates why close approaches have been so important to understanding Mars. The improved resolution is breathtaking. During the close approach of Mars in the fall of 1877, Asaph Hall at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the red planet’s two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. That same close approach unfortunately led Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli to declare the existence of channels or even canals on Mars. American scholar Percival Lowell took the idea and ran with it, making a career of publishing studies of Martian canals and using them as proof of Martian life.

Lowell’s enthusiasm prompted biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to seriously consider the conditions necessary for extraterrestrial life. In the process, he made some of the first calculations about the temperature on Mars based on its distance from the sun. He also calculated how big the canals would have to be so they could be seen from Earth. The canals would literally have to be miles wide, delivering water from tiny polar caps. As Wallace said, “Any attempt to make that scanty surplus, by means of overflowing canals, travel across the equator in to the opposite hemisphere, through such a terrible desert region and exposed to such a cloudless sky as Mr. Lowell describes, would be the work of a body of madmen rather than intelligent beings.”

What I like about this story is that although Lowell misinterpreted what he saw, his observations prompted critical thinking and led to a whole body of research. The modern Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence, most certainly owes its existence to Alfred Russel Wallace pondering whether or not Martians really could build canals as Lowell claimed.

Whether there are people on Mars or not, the planet captivates me and many other people. I’m not sure whether it’s the desert vistas, the prospect of a canyon that dwarfs the Grand Canyon, or a mountain that dwarfs Everest. Perhaps its as simple as knowing that when Mars is at closest approach, it comes tantalizingly close to revealing its secrets even in an 8-inch telescope as in the photo above.

The Solar Sea

I’ve been compelled to write about Mars on several occasions. The planet plays a prominent role in my novel The Solar Sea which you can read about at TheSolarSea.com. While there, you can check out some cool illustrations by Laura Givens and download a free reading guide. Also, my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” appears in The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley. You can check it out at Amazon.com.

Although Percival Lowell was wrong about Martian canals, his publications on the subject and the discussions that ensued helped to assure that Mars would be a real place in people’s imaginations in the years that followed. In much the same way, Kepler Project Scientist Steve Howell and I want to start viewing the planets discovered by the Kepler Space Probe with a similar sense of place. Because of that, we’ll start reading for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys on Wednesday, June 15. Interested writers should click here for the guidelines.

If you missed Mars’s close approach this time around, despair not! Mars will make an even closer approach around the end of July 2018. At that point it will only be 35.8 million miles from Earth and appear about a 30% larger than it did this year. I hope to be out with my telescope and camera to try to get another image of our fascinating planetary neighbor.