It is now a little more than a year since NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover made its spectacular landing in the middle of Mars’ 45km-wide Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021. Since then it’s been testing its tools and instruments, flying an experimental mini-helicopter and gathering a general impression of its surroundings.
And in April this year the rover arrived at the doorstep of Jezero Crater’s ancient river delta, after collecting eight rock-core samples from its first science campaign and completing a record-breaking, 31-Martian-day (or sol) dash across about 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the red planet.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington has said “The delta at Jezero Crater promises to be a veritable geologic feast and one of the best locations on Mars to look for signs of past microscopic life.”
The delta, a massive fan-shaped collection of rocks and sediment at the western edge of Jezero Crater, formed at the convergence of a Martian river and a crater lake billions of years ago. Its exploration is particularly significant because all the fine-grained sediment deposited at its base long ago is the mission’s best bet for finding the preserved remnants of ancient microbial life.
The rover will identify the planet’s geology and past climate and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance initiative is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Since 1960 there have been 49 spacecraft missions (including unsuccessful ones) relating to planet Mars, such as orbiters and rovers. The first successful mission was Mariner 4, which accomplished a flyby of the planet on 15 July 1965. In 1971, the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 orbited the planet 362 times and Mars 3 managed a soft landing and deployed the first rover on another planet.
In April 2001, both NASA and the European Space Agency, launched orbiters – which are expected to remain operational until 2025 or 2026. Two more NASA missions produced successful landings in 2003, followed by a third in 2007. All successful missions since 2011 are still operational and feature such new players as India, the United Arab Emirates and China and include a mixture of rover, lander, orbiter and flyby expeditions.
Earth and Mars have had long-standing relationship, as ‘we’ have, on many occasions, been on the receiving end of meteorites coming from the Red planet. NASA retains a catalogue of 34 Mars meteorites – 3 of which contain possible evidence of past life on Mars, in the form of microscopic structures resembling fossilized bacteria (so-called biomorphs).
Mars has been under observation for over 4,000 years, with records of ancient Egyptian astronomers watching the planet as far back as the 2nd millennium B. C. Babylonian, Greek, Indian, Islamic and Chinese astronomers all expanded our knowledge of the Red planet and our solar system.
Our knowledge of Mars improved following advent of modern astronomy with development by Nicholas Copernicus, in the 16th century, of the heliocentric model of the Solar System This was revised further by Johannes Kepler, who gave an elliptical orbit for Mars.
Then followed telescopic observations by Galileo Galilei in 1610 and discovery of the polar ice caps a century later. Higher definition telescopes in the 19th century allowed permanent features on the planet to be mapped in detail. Many astronomers thought they could see ‘canals’ on the planet that contained or used to hold water.
Among the dissenting voices were those of the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion – both of whom were members of the Theosophical Society. As bigger and better telescopes were used, fewer long, straight ‘canals’ could be seen leading to the conclusion that what was observed was no more than an ‘optical illusion’.
Flammarion (26 February 1842 – 3 June 1925) was the author of more than fifty titles and his writings include popular science works about astronomy, several notable early science fiction novels, and works on psychical research and related topics.
He also published the magazine L’Astronomie, starting in 1882. He was a founder and the first president of the Société Astronomique de France, and maintained a private observatory at Juvisy-sur-Orge, Paris, France.
Flammarion has been described as an “astronomer, mystic and storyteller” who was “obsessed by life after death, and on other worlds, and [who] seemed to see no distinction between the two”. (James A. Herrick (2008). Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs. InterVarsity Press. p. 56.)
In his youth, Flammarion was exposed to two major social movements in the western world: on the one hand the ideas of Darwin and Lamarck and on the other the rising popularity of spiritism and appearance of spiritualist churches throughout Europe.
He was strongly influenced by Jean Reynaud, who had developed a religious system based on the transmigration of souls believed to be reconcilable with both Christianity and pluralism. He was convinced that souls after the physical death pass from planet to planet and progressively improve at each new incarnation. (Reynaud, Jean (1806 – 1863) – The Worlds of David Darling)
Flammarion, considered Man to be a “citizen of the sky,” other worlds “studios of human work, schools where the expanding soul progressively learns and develops, assimilating gradually the knowledge to which its aspirations tend, approaching thus evermore the end of its destiny.” (Camille Flammarion’s Collection)
With great commercial success he blended scientific speculation with science fiction to propagate modern myths such as the notion that “superior” extraterrestrial species reside on numerous planets, and that the human soul evolves through cosmic reincarnation. (Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs. p. 57)
In 1907, somewhat controversially, he wrote in the New York Times, that he believed that dwellers on Mars had tried to communicate with the Earth in the past.
The notion of ‘canals’ on Mars, began with Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observations in 1877. In the end, it was concluded that these were an optical illusion due to the limited observing instruments of the time, as revealed by better telescopes in the 1920s.
During the 1880s and 1890s Flammarion, a contemporary of Schiaparelli, extensively researched the so-called “canals”.
In common with the American astronomer, Percival Lowell, he thought the “canals” were artificial in nature and most likely the “rectification of old rivers aimed at the general distribution of water to the surface of the continents.”
He assumed the planet was in an advanced stage of its habitability, and the canals were the product of an intelligent species attempting to survive on a dying world.
Flammarion was thought of highly by one of the esotericist H. P. Blavatsky’s teachers Koot Hoomi who writes in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett
You have among the learned members of your society one Theosophist who without familiarity with our occult doctrine, has yet intuitively grasped from scientific data the idea of a solar pralaya (inactive state) and its manwantara (active state) in their beginnings. I mean the celebrated French astronomer Flammarion — “La Resurrection et la Fin des Mondes” (Chapter 4 res.). He speaks like a true seer. The facts are as he surmises with slight modifications.
In the eleventh chapter of Esoteric Buddhism called “The Universe”, esteemed writer A. P. Sinnett includes Flammarion’s ideas about a planet reaching the end of its life, outlined in his epic 1893 book La Résurrection et la Fin des Mondes (End of the World).
In consequence of what he treats as secular refrigeration, but which more truly is old age and loss of vital power, the solidification and desiccation of the earth at last reaches a point when the whole globe becomes a relaxed conglomerate. Its period of child-bearing has gone by; its progeny are all nurtured; its term of life is finished.
Hence its constituent masses cease to obey those laws of cohesion and aggregation which held them together. And becoming like a corpse, which, abandoned to the work of destruction, leaves each molecule composing it free to separate itself from the body, and obey in future the sway of new influences.
Speaking about the dismissive attitude by 19th century Science, in general, to the concept of intelligent life on other planets, H. P. Blavatsky says the following about Flammarion in her great work, The Secret Doctrine (Volume I, footnote, p. 606):
Even the question of the plurality of worlds inhabited by sentient creatures is rejected or approached with the greatest caution! And yet see what the great astronomer, Camille Flammarion, says in his ‘Pluralité des mondes.’
She adds that scientists of her time in the 1800s knew as little of our current ‘Aryan’ epoch and its origins, as did ‘men’ from other planets.
With the exception of Flammarion and a few mystics among astronomers, even the habitableness of other planets is mostly denied. Yet such great adept astronomers were the Scientists of the earliest races of the Aryan stock, that they seem to have known far more about the races of Mars and Venus, than the modern Anthropologist knows of those of the early stages of the Earth.
Mme Blavatsky also commented on Flammarion’s scientific arguments that the conditions necessary for life are present on other planets:
Still the fact remains that most of the planets, as the stars beyond our system, are inhabited, a fact which has been admitted by the men of science themselves. Laplace and Herschel believed it, though they wisely abstained from imprudent speculation; and the same conclusion has been worked out and supported with an array of scientific considerations by C. Flammarion, the well-known French Astronomer. The arguments he brings forward are strictly scientific, and such as to appeal even to a materialistic mind, which would remain unmoved by such thoughts as those of Sir David Brewster.
She continues in the Secret Doctrine, (Volume 2, pp. 701-703):
. . . Flammarion shows, in addition, that all the conditions of life — even as we know it — are present on some at least of the planets, and points to the fact that these conditions must be much more favourable on them than they are on our Earth. Thus scientific reasoning, as well as observed facts, concur with the statements of the seer and the innate voice in man’s own heart in declaring that life — intelligent, conscious life — must exist on other worlds than ours.
Blavatsky says many have attempted to imagine and describe life on other planets and fall into the trap of suggesting that people will look much the same as those on Earth, and clothe themselves in a similar fashion to ourselves. She adds
‘witness Swedenborg who goes so far as to dress the inhabitants of Mercury, whom he meets with in the spirit-world, in clothes such as are worn in Europe’.
The other major abiding passion of Flammarion was Psychical Research. But he approached spiritism, reincarnation and allied subjects from a scientific viewpoint and writes.
It is by the scientific method alone that we may make progress in the search for truth. Religious belief must not take the place of impartial analysis. We must be constantly on our guard against illusions.
Flammarion was very close to the French author Allan Kardec, the founder of Spiritism.
Flammarion had studied mediumship and wrote, It is infinitely to be regretted that we cannot trust the loyalty of mediums. They almost always cheat. (Pearson’s Magazine. Volume 20. Issue 4. Pearson Publishing Company. 1908. p. 383)
He did, however attend séances and believed that some of the phenomena was genuine. After two years investigation into automatic writing he wrote that the subconscious mind is the explanation and there is no evidence for the spirit hypothesis. Flammarion believed in the survival of the soul after death but wrote that mediumship had not been scientifically proven.
He believed that telepathy might explain some of the phenomena occurring in séances.
Flammarion was the first to propose names for moons on Neptune and Jupiter – Triton and Amalthea, respectively – though not officially adopted for many decades after his death.
The name ‘Flammarion’ appears as craters on the Earth’s Moon and on Mars. And in his honour, Asteroid 102 is named ‘Flammario’.
The author is grateful for background information gleaned from NASA, Theosophy Wiki and Wikipedia.
Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, from Canada. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – for about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated. He is a National Lecturer for the TS in England and has spoken on numerous occasions in London and at various other locations throughout the UK, Canada and the USA. During 2021 and 2022 he has spoken for the TS in England, the TS in Ukraine, for the European School of Theosophy and the Philippines Section of the Society.