Mars has inspired the human imagination for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans identified the Red Planet with the god of war, and the ancient Babylonians before them named it after Nergal, the fiery god of destruction and the underworld. They saw something sinister and malevolent in the erratically moving point of reddish light that refused to obey the astronomical rules of the night sky with its rigidly-ordered suite of stars.
More recently, fiction writers have taken up the plot, beginning with the 1898 classic The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, with its army of extraterrestrial invaders from Mars, to The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury and the other, less notable, sci-fi romps of the 1950s. Mars, to them, was a world of intelligent lifeforms.
But these newly released images, originally published in National Geographic and shown here for the first time, describe another picture of Mars. They show how eerily similar its landscape can be to that of Earth. One image of the jagged rim of Victoria Crater for instance could be any rocky outcrop in the deserts of South Africa or the American south-west – or even a desolate corner of the Peak District.
The image, taken by Nasa's rover Opportunity, shows just one of many rocky promontories that stick out from the rim of this half-mile-wide crater formed many millions of years ago from the high-energy impact of a massive object from space.
A second image shows the tracks of Opportunity as it rolls away from a crater at the stately pace of less than two feet a minute – a path plotted by the rover itself largely without the help of human controllers on Earth.
Like its sister rover Spirit, Opportunity has operated far longer than its scheduled run of 90 days. They have both now survived for nearly 60 months, providing invaluable insight into the planet's landscape and geology. Along with the two rovers, there is also a lander and three orbiting satellites surveying Mars. Never in history has there been so much scientific data and visual information coming back to Earth from our nearest planetary neighbour.
Scientists are now convinced that there are large volumes of water on Mars, in the form of sub-surface ice. They believe that the planet was once hospitable to life, with an atmosphere and temperatures conducive to liquid water. One day, future surveys of Mars – whether by robot or human explorers – may finally detect signs that life did exist on the Red Planet.
Read the National Geographic article at: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/12/planet-mars/updike-text?pid=independent_mars