This essay shows that maps, images and icons were central to the production of a contested geographical knowledge about Mars during a popular frenzy over the red planet from about 1890 to 1910. It reviews the history of Mars science and popular interest in the surface features of Mars, showing how geographical concerns were central to astronomers, other scientists, and general audiences alike. It focuses mainly on map production and mapping controversies, showing how cartographic icons became important drivers of belief in the existence of intelligent life on Mars.

In today’s scientific and mainstream news reports, images of the planet Mars abound. In false color, true color, infrared and stereo, observers can now view the planet’s surface in a variety of highly manipulated formats. The increasing sophistication of camera technology and data processing tools over the last two decades has allowed robotic exploration missions to create dramatic images of surface characteristics, like soil chemistry, that are invisible to terrestrial observers on their own home planet. As a result, popular support for Mars exploration is now tied directly to iconic scientific images of Mars that show the planet’s remote surface as visible, navigable, and sublime. Exploratory mission teams now explicitly discuss image production as part of their mandate, intentionally producing images for public consumption in concert with those needed for scientific inquiry. [1]

A century and a half ago, the situation was largely comparable. Although scientific inquiries and viewing technologies were admittedly different from those that dominate today’s Mars research, the popular impact of Mars-surface imagery was dramatically similar. When widespread telescopic Mars observation began in the mid-1800s, scientists were highly uncertain about Mars’s essential characteristics. It can be hard to understand this uncertainty in the modern age, when GoogleMars is freely available to computer users who wish to visually ‹fly› through the Martian landscape and observe its terrain from the comfort of their own homes. But last century’s uncertainties about Mars inspired considerable debate over the planet’s landscape features as well as over the proper methods that should be used to understand Martian geography. As these scientific debates intersected with popular interest in extraterrestrial life, many discussions about Mars, and its capacity to host intelligent life, revolved around maps and cartographic icons.

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