Coming of the Martians!

Orson Welles
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October for most of us means the real beginning of the fall season, with its lower humidity, cooler temperatures, lovely turning of the leaves, and beautifully clear nights for stargazing. It’s also the month of Halloween. For me, mention of October and this popular holiday mean something else as well—it takes me back to the night that Mars invaded the Earth!

On the evening of October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater aired the notorious CBS radio broadcast War of the Worlds, which set off a national panic. It was an adaptation of the classic science fiction novel of the same title written by England’s H.G. Wells in 1898 about the invasion of Martians. (The similarity of the names of the author and actor is fascinating!) The radio version had them landing in New Jersey and making their way to New York City, devastating everything in their path with their lethal heat rays and poisonous black smoke. Many alarmed listeners missed the disclaimer that this was only a play—a holiday offering for Halloween the following night—and fled their homes. (I’ve listened to a recording of the original broadcast and can readily see why people panicked as they did!)

Mars, of course, has always held the exciting possibility of harboring some kind of life. Its polar ice caps, blue-green dark areas once thought to be vegetation, orange windswept deserts—not to mention a daily rotation and axial tilt nearly the same as ours—make it the most Earth-like of all the planets in the solar system. But it’s the planet-wide system of famous "canals" especially as popularized by Percival Lowell that contributed to the long belief that this neighboring world was the abode of intelligent life. Sadly for us romantics, the various spacecraft that visited Mars have shown the supposed artifacts to be an illusion of the eye "connecting the dots" of surface features into apparent lines.

Mars right now is visible in the pre-dawn morning sky and, currently being quite distant from us, is a disappointing sight in small telescopes. But as stargazers, we have to learn to see with our minds as well as sight. Looking at that ruddy beacon in the sky, think about all the excitement it has spawned over the centuries about the possibility of life elsewhere in space. There may not be beings like us living there now—but perhaps the late visionary Ray Bradbury was right when he said that "We are the Martians." He was referring to the time when we eventually colonize the planet. And here’s an interesting fact about Mars in this regard. It’s often referred to as the "Red Planet." But it actually looks orange, and that’s because its vast deserts are oxidized—rusted! By heating its soil, oxygen and water vapor would be released. Those currently planning to become "Martians" and someday terraform the planet are counting on doing just that!

— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, will soon be available from