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Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835 - 1910)

Giovanni Schiaparelli was born in Savigliano, Piedmont in Italy. He attended Turin University and went on to study astronomy at the Royal Observatory in Russia and the Pilkova Observatory in Russia. In 1860 he returned to Italy to work at the Brera Observatory in Milan. After two years in this post he was promoted to director.

At that time the Brera Observatory had a small telescope that did not permit much more than the study of meteors and comets. Schiaparelli worked within these limitations, showing that meteors move through space in the same orbits as comets and that there are annual showers of "shooting stars". He also showed that many comets had very similar orbits.

 

Giovanni Schiaparelli

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His discovery of the asteroid Hesperia in 1861 gained him a more powerful telescope for the observatory. He used this new telescope to study the surfaces of planets. In 1877, Mars was in a very good position for such a detailed study of its surface from the Earth. Schiaparelli set to work to draw the most detailed map of the Red Planet ever to be published. Over the next ten years he added and modified his map as he observed new features. He named every structure, using ancient Greek, Roman and biblical language roots. The volcano Olympus Mons, now known to be the largest volcano in the solar system, was one such feature. Most of the names attributed by Schiaparelli to the features seen on the surface of Mars are still in use today.

Schiaparelli drew the surface lines that he observed on Mars. He called these "canali", which, in fact, means channels, but a mis-translation at some point has led to them being referred to as canals. Schiaparelli gave these "canali" names such as Lethes, Nepenthes, Ganges, Euphrates and Nilus. He was convinced that the features he observed on Mars, over a period of many years, indicated that the planet held water. Indeed, he reported a "sea" that grew larger at certain times and he thought that the lines he recorded really did hold water.

Many astronomers turned their telescopes towards Mars after learning about Schiaparelli's discoveries. The word "canals" indicated structures that had been constructed and there was high expectation of finding life on Mars.

 

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