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Hello Mars. Goodbye sci-fi

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Michael Dwyer/AP

(Read caption) People gazed at Mars from the Harvard Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., in 2003 - when the planet was the closest it's been to Earth in 60,000 years.

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There are many moons in our solar system, but we think of ours as “the moon.” It waxes and wanes on schedule. It’s as reliable as the sun. The planets are different. They trace mysterious paths through the night sky, lining up, separating, shining brightly, disappearing. 

And no planet has intrigued us like Mars – far enough away to be an enigma, but sometimes tantalizingly close. Mars has always straddled fiction and fact. Named for a Roman god, about Earth-size, possibly habitable (friend? foe?), it has, until recently, been just beyond the range of exploration.

As technology has advanced, so has our knowledge of Mars, but not always in myth-busting ways. In 1877, for instance, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed what he thought were channels on Mars – “canali” – which, mistranslated as “canals,” gave rise to theories about a Martian civilization capable of engineering and agriculture. That set off a boom, in books and movies about journeys to Mars and close encounters with Martians. If nothing else, Mars fiction whetted our appetites for exploration. Science, after all, starts with speculation, though it can’t end there. As the philosopher of science Roger Bacon put it, the “strongest arguments prove nothing so long as the conclusions are not verified by experience.”

If, like me, you were a kid at the start of the space race, you’ll recall the Soviet Union throwing probe after probe at the planet in the early 1960s. All failed. NASA had its flubs as well. So many missions to Mars broke down that scientists talked of a “Mars curse.” There wasn’t one, of course, but sending a vessel to the red planet has long tested the limits of engineering. 

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