Imagine it's 50,000 years ago. You live in France, paint oxen on cave walls, start fires and sharpen arrows, which you, a clever Cro-Magnon, just invented. You're accustomed to the big, silver circle that lights the sky at night, but one day you see something that blows your prehistoric mind: Hovering in the east is a menacing red mass that wants to kill you. Of this you're certain. Many millennia later, after you lose your hair and move to Africa, the fearsome orb acquires names. The early Egyptians call it "Har décher, the Red One," the early Babylonians "Nergal, the Star of Death." Later, the Greeks and Romans proclaim there's only one planet that can properly rule war, blood and turmoil: Ares, aka Mars.
Today, Mars remains mythic. We know a few things about the place -- like maybe it's not an evil death star after all. (Besides, everyone knows that Darth Vadar lives on the real Death Star.) Copernicus, Kepler and their ilk collected some vital stats -- It's got two moons! An average daily temperature of negative 81 degrees! -- but essentially the place remains as much a mystery as Greenland. Has there ever been life there? Could we one day call it home, after we've properly trashed our own little planet? Does it really need women?
Science has plugged away at these questions. The Mariner 9 mission of 1971 produced photos of canyons and what apparently were once waterways, suggesting that the Red Planet has undergone enough climatic cataclysm to shame our own measly ice ages. At 25 kilometers high, Olympus Mons is the tallest mountain in the known universe. And though the Face on Mars is probably just a geological configuration -- and not evidence of an ancient alien architectural movement -- it's still one of the niftiest roadside attractions this side of the aurora borealis.
NASA decelerated its Mars program in 1994, only to revive it two years later when the discovery of fossilized Martian microbes reignited the public's passion for the planet and inspired a new dialogue about what to do once we get there. At the 1996 "Case for Mars" conference held in Boulder, futurist George William Herbert proposed sending three astronauts to Mars equipped with one-way tickets, lots of fancy-shmancy survey gear and enough food and water to live out their lives. NASA didn't take him up on the idea, but the agency has hinted that manned exploration could be a reality as early as 2014. After that, who knows? A Starbucks on every canal? (Bad news for colonized kids: Because it takes a while for the planet to complete its elliptical orbit around the sun, birthdays will only come every 687 days.
Why wait? Mars has been within spitting distance all month long, and the view is about to get even better. This week, a mere 36,649,589 miles will separate the heavenly body from Earth. Scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder will explain what this all means during the Mars Marathon, a series of lectures in Fiske Planetarium this week. Fiske's high-powered telescopes will make the planet look as big as your head, but even to the naked eye, Mars will appear larger than it has in recorded history. Some scientists estimate it hasn't been this close since 3,000 B.C., while others place the last occurrence tens of thousands of years before that.
Either way, it's been a while -- and it isn't going to happen again until 2287. So look up, people of Earth. The sky is calling.