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Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli

Born: March 14, 1835, in Savigliano, Italy
Died: July 4, 1910, in Milan, Italy

Giovanni Schiaparelli was educated at Turin University, and in 1857 went to Berlin to study astronomy under Johann Enke. In 1859 he became assistant observer at Pulkovo Observatory, but left this post in 1860 to take up a similar appointment at Brera Observatory in Milan. It was there that Schiaparelli spent the rest of his distinguished career, and served as the Observatory's director from 1862 until 1900.

Schiaparelli was not long into his career at Brera when he started to make a name for himself. On April 29, 1861, he discovered a new asteroid: 69 Hesperia. However the real focus of his interest at that time was on comets, and it was on this subject that Schiaparelli's international reputation was established.

Not only did Schiaparelli routinely observe comets, but also calculated their orbits and thoerized about the natural forces which shaped the comets' appearance and the position of their tails as they orbited the Sun.

Earlier observations of periodic Comet Biela (in 1845 and 1852) had shown that the forces being exerted on comets were strong enough to cause their disintegration, and that the debris could be dispersed along the comet's path around the Sun.

In 1862, Schiaparelli was able make observations of a large comet and he noted that the comet's nucleus appeared to be enveloped in a luminous cloud from which at intervals bright sparks flared, similar to meteorites in Earth's atmosphere.

Over time Schiaparelli surmised that perhaps comet debris was the source of meteorites. From centuries of observations it was established that meteor showers tended to radiate from specific points in the sky. To Schiaparelli this suggested that, as the Earth moved through its orbit around the Sun, it was from time to time intersecting the orbits of comets and passing through the material left in their wake which in turn became visible as meteorites.

Following the meteor showers of 1866, Schiaparelli revealed his hypothesis in letters to fellow astronomer Pietro Angelo Secchi who then published them in the Bullettino meteorologico dell’Osservatorio del Collegio romano.

The theory was later refined and reprinted in Entwurf einer astronomischen Theorie der Sternschnuppen in 1871. Then, after a notable meteor shower in November 1872, he again explained his theory in letters in which he stated:

"The meteor showers are the product of the dissolution of comets and consist of very minute particles that they ... have abandoned along their orbit because of the disintegrating force that the Sun and the planets exert on the very fine matter of which they are composed."

Through observations by other astronomers, Schiaparelli's theory was subsequently proved correct. However, he is remembered today primarily for his observations of Mars.

Giovanni Schiaparelli

Schiaparelli conducted his observations of Mars from 1877 to 1890, during the periods when the planet was in opposition, and made maps of its surface features.

Linear features which Schiaparelli described in Italian as 'canali', or channels, were misinterpreted as 'canals' in English, suggesting that these were not natural geological features.

The notion of purpose-built canals on Mars implied that life had evolved there as well. The idea of intelligent life on Mars quickly became assimilated into popular culture, inspiring many works of science-fiction, such as H.G. Well's The War of the Worlds, first published in 1897.

The search for evidence of life on Mars continues, and in March 2016 the European Space Agency launched its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft to the Red Planet. As part of its mission, the orbiter will deploy a lander named Schiaparelli.

Schiaparelli's Map of Mars
Schiaparelli's map of Mars - click for larger view