In the evenings for the past few weeks I’ve seen Mars, a bright orange ember rising in the southeast. Mars, the red planet that takes two of our years to orbit the sun, so distant that it takes sunlight thirteen minutes to reach it and where Matt Damon was stranded for more than two hours, fires the imaginations of so many of us. I always think that’s because it’s away from the Sun, unlike Venus, which is more accurately called Earth’s twin because it’s closer in size and closer to us. Venus, with its sulphuric acid snow, temperatures above the melting point of lead, and thick cloud cover is even more inhospitable to human life than downtown Duluth. Not that Mars is much better, although scientists have recently found a large reservoir of salt water there, holding out the promise that there might be life other than David Bowie on Mars.
Mars has such a grip on us, I think, because it’s really the first stepping stone beyond our world, even more so than the Moon because it’s a planet to itself, a possible home away from home, even a place we might settle, which–spoiler alert–is how Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles ends.
Because of its red color Mars has traditionally been seen as a harbinger of war, although depending on the atmosphere it can also appear yellow which I like to think used to make armies turn around and run the other way. That may just be a coincidence, though. As one of our neighbors Mars is always in the sky somewhere. Mars is also, since the demotion of Pluto, the last terrestrial planet in our solar system. After it is Jupiter, the first and largest of the gas giants, and in the evenings I see it too, rising at about the same time Mars does, but in the south.
Some science fiction writers, starting with H.G. Wells, have seen Mars as a threat, a potential invader, but if you add up all the probes and satellites we’re the ones who’ve thrown a lot of stuff at Mars, and as for its being the planet of war, actually if we ever get there it’s going to take international cooperation which makes its rising, to me, look more like a sign of peace.