The First Telescopes
A New View of Mars!

In 1610 the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei used a primitive telescope and described Mars as a "spherical body illuminated by the Sun." He noted that it went through phases like the Moon. It is believed that Galileo was the first person to use the newly invented spyglass (used by sailors) to look at the heavens. He was a believer in the astronomer Copernicus’ theory that the planets moved around the Sun - although he was made to recant his beliefs by the Catholic Church (who had their own ideas about the nature of the universe at that time).

Look at the images here taken from small telescopes of the planet Mars. 

  • What do you see? What do think the fuzzy shapes are? 


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If you can, borrow a telescope (or build one like in this activity) and look again at the planet Mars with the telescope. To get some tips about looking at Mars with a telescope, click here

To find out where Mars is in the night sky on any day, you can use the planet finder

Here are some sketches of Mars as seen through a telescope. Before astronomers had cameras to attach to their telescopes, they made sketches like these. If you get a chance to look at Mars through a telescope, make a drawing of your own in your journal. 

SKETCHES  (Click image for larger view.) 

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For hundreds of years astronomers used telescopes to explore Mars. They made sketches and tried to deduce what Mars was really like. They looked at the white patches and thought there might be ice. They looked at the dark patches and thought there might be vegetation.

Questions to think about: 

  • When you look at the telescope images of Mars, what do you see? 
  • From these images, what kinds of speculations might you make about the possibility of plant or animal life on Mars? 

Review the chronology below to find out what some of the first astronomers saw and thought about the planet. 

In 1609, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) observed Mars with his primitive telescope. Later, in 1610, he wrote to a friend about observing phases on Mars indicating "a spherical body illuminated by the Sun."

In 1659, the first sketch of Mars was drawn by the Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). Huygens used a telescope of his own design, which had a magnification of 50 times (much stronger that previous telescopes). He recorded the first feature on Mars, a large dark spot (most likely Syrtis Major) that was named the "Hourglass Sea." Observing the spot over time, he approximated a 24-hour Martian day.


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The Sytris Major region of Mars is now known to be not one dark feature but a series of dark streaks leading away from a number of small craters. 

In 1666, Gian Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) made sketches of Mars and determined a day length of 24 hours 40 minutes. (Cassini made about 20 sketches of Mars and noticed that the markings came back to the same positions about 40 minutes later the next day) Cassini also saw the polar caps.

In 1813, Honeré Flaugergues, a French amateur astronomer, noticed rapid melting of the ice caps on Mars. He also noted the presence of "yellow clouds" on Mars (later identified as dust clouds).

For more detailed chronologies of the history of Mars you can click on any of the links below.

NEXT... The ‘Canali’ and the First Martians