Mars Facts: Life, Water and Robots on the Red Planet
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. Befitting the red planet’s bloody color, the Romans named it after their god of war. The Romans copied the ancient Greeks, who also named the planet after their god of war, Ares. Other civilizations also typically gave the planet names based on its color — for example, the Egyptians named it “Her Desher,” meaning “the red one,” while ancient Chinese astronomers dubbed it “the fire star.”
The bright rust color Mars is known for is due to iron-rich minerals in its regolith — the loose dust and rock covering its surface. The soil of Earth is a kind of regolith, albeit one loaded with organic content. According to NASA, the iron minerals oxidize, or rust, causing the soil to look red.
The cold, thin atmosphere means liquid water likely cannot exist on the Martian surface for any length of time. Features called recurring slope lineae may have spurts of briny water flowing on the surface, but this evidence is disputed; some scientists argue the hydrogen spotted from orbit in this region may instead indicate briny salts. This means that although this desert planet is just half the diameter of Earth, it has the same amount of dry land.
The red planet is home to both the highest mountain and the deepest, longest valley in the solar system. Olympus Mons is roughly 17 miles (27 kilometers) high, about three times as tall as Mount Everest, while the Valles Marineris system of valleys — named after the Mariner 9 probe that discovered it in 1971 — can go as deep as 6 miles (10 km) and runs east-west for roughly 2,500 miles (4,000 km), about one-fifth of the distance around Mars and close to the width of Australia or the distance from Philadelphia to San Diego.
Mars has the largest volcanoes in the solar system, including Olympus Mons, which is about 370 miles (600 km) in diameter, wide enough to cover the entire state of New Mexico. It is a shield volcano, with slopes that rise gradually like those of Hawaiian volcanoes, and was created by eruptions of lavas that flowed for long distances before solidifying. Mars also has many other kinds of volcanic landforms, from small, steep-sided cones to enormous plains coated in hardened lava. Some minor eruptions might still occur on the planet.
Scientists think the Valles Marineris formed mostly by rifting of the crust as it got stretched. Individual canyons within the system are as much as 60 miles (100 km) wide. They merge in the central part of the Valles Marineris in a region as much as 370 miles (600 km) wide. Large channels emerging from the ends of some canyons and layered sediments within suggest the canyons might once have been filled with liquid water.
Channels, valleys, and gullies are found all over Mars, and suggest that liquid water might have flowed across the planet’s surface in recent times. Some channels can be 60 miles (100 km) wide and 1,200 miles (2,000 km) long. Water may still lie in cracks and pores in underground rock.
Many regions of Mars are flat, low-lying plains. The lowest of the northern plains are among the flattest, smoothest places in the solar system, potentially created by water that once flowed across the Martian surface. The northern hemisphere mostly lies at a lower elevation than the southern hemisphere, suggesting the crust may be thinner in the north than in the south. This difference between the north and south might be due to a very large impact shortly after the birth of Mars.
The number of craters on Mars varies dramatically from place to place, depending on how old the surface is. Much of the surface of the southern hemisphere is extremely old, and so has many craters — including the planet’s largest, 1,400-mile-wide (2,300 km) Hellas Planitia — while that of northern hemisphere is younger and so has fewer craters. Some volcanoes have few craters, which suggests they erupted recently, with the resulting lava covering up any old craters. Some craters have unusual-looking deposits of debris around them resembling solidified mudflows, potentially indicating that impactor hit underground water or ice.
Vast deposits of what appear to be finely layered stacks of water ice and dust extend from the poles to latitudes of about 80 degrees in both hemispheres. These were probably deposited by the atmosphere over long spans of time. On top of much of these layered deposits in both hemispheres are caps of water ice that remain frozen all year round.
Additional seasonal caps of frost appear in the wintertime. These are made of solid carbon dioxide, also known as “dry ice,” which has condensed from carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere, and in the deepest part of the winter, this frost can extend from the poles to latitudes as low as 45 degrees, or halfway to the equator. The dry ice layer appears to have a fluffy texture, like freshly fallen snow, according to the report in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.
Mars is much colder than Earth, in large part due to its greater distance from the sun. The average temperature is about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius), although it can vary from minus 195 F (minus 125 C) near the poles during the winter to as much as 70 F (20 C) at midday near the equator.
The carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars is also roughly 100 times less dense than Earth’s on average, but it is nevertheless thick enough to support weather, clouds and winds. The density of the atmosphere varies seasonally, as winter forces carbon dioxide to freeze out of the Martian air. In the ancient past, the atmosphere was likely thicker and able to support water flowing on its surface. Over time, lighter molecules in the Martian atmosphere escaped under pressure from the solar wind, which affected the atmosphere because Mars does not have a global magnetic field. This process is being studied today by NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found the first definitive detections of carbon-dioxide snow clouds, making Mars the only body in the solar system known to host the unusual winter weather. The red planet also causes water-ice snow to fall from the clouds.
The dust storms of the Mars are the largest in the solar system, capable of blanketing the entire red planet and lasting for months. One theory as to why dust storms can grow so big on Mars starts with airborne dust particles absorbing sunlight, warming the Martian atmosphere in their vicinity. Warm pockets of air flow toward colder regions, generating winds. Strong winds lift more dust off the ground, which in turn heats the atmosphere, raising more wind and kicking up more dust.
The axis of Mars, like Earth’s, is tilted with relation to the sun. This means that like Earth, the amount of sunlight falling on certain parts of the planet can vary widely during the year, giving Mars seasons.
However, the seasons that Mars experiences are more extreme than Earth’s because the red planet’s elliptical, oval-shaped orbit around the sun is more elongated than that of any of the other major planets. When Mars is closest to the sun, its southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, giving it a short, very hot summer, while the northern hemisphere experiences a short, cold winter. When Mars is farthest from the sun, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, giving it a long, mild summer, while the southern hemisphere experiences a long, cold winter.
The tilt of Mars axis swings wildly over time because it is not stabilized by a large moon, such as on Earth. This led to different climates on its surface through its history. A 2017 study suggests that the changing tilt also influenced the release of methane into Mars’ atmosphere, causing temporary warming periods that allowed water to flow.
Composition & structure
Atmospheric composition (by volume)
According to NASA, the atmosphere of Mars is 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, 2.7 percent nitrogen, 1.6 percent argon, 0.13 percent oxygen, 0.08 percent carbon monoxide, and minor amounts of water, nitrogen oxide, neon, hydrogen-deuterium-oxygen, krypton and xenon.
Mars currently has no global magnetic field, but there are regions of its crust that can be at least 10 times more strongly magnetized than anything measured on Earth, remnants of an ancient global magnetic field.
Mars likely has a solid core composed of iron, nickel and sulfur. The mantle of Mars is probably similar to Earth’s in that it is composed mostly of peridotite, which is made up primarily of silicon, oxygen, iron and magnesium. The crust is probably largely made of the volcanic rock basalt, which is also common in the crusts of the Earth and the moon, although some crustal rocks, especially in the northern hemisphere, may be a form of andesite, a volcanic rock that contains more silica than basalt does.
Scientists think that on average, the Martian core is about 1,800 and 2,400 miles in diameter (3,000 and 4,000 km), its mantle is about 900 to 1,200 miles (5,400 to 7,200 km) wide and its crust is about 30 miles (50 km) thick.
Orbit & rotation
: 141,633,260 miles (227,936,640 km). By comparison: 1.524 times that of Earth
Perihelion (closest): 128,400,000 miles (206,600,000 km). By comparison: 1.404 times that of Earth
Aphelion (farthest): 154,900,000 miles (249,200,000 km). By comparison: 1.638 times that of Earth
The moons of Mars
The two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, were discovered by American astronomer Asaph Hall over the course of a week in 1877. Hall had almost given up his search for a moon of Mars, but his wife, Angelina, urged him on — he discovered Deimos the next night, and Phobos six days after that. He named the moons after the sons of the Greek war god Ares — Phobos means “fear,” while Deimos means “rout.”
Both Phobos and Deimos are apparently made of carbon-rich rock mixed with ice and are covered in dust and loose rocks. They are tiny next to Earth’s moon, and are irregularly shaped, since they lack enough gravity to pull themselves into a more circular form. The widest Phobos gets is about 17 miles (27 km), and the widest Deimos gets is roughly nine miles (15 km).
Both moons are pockmarked with craters from meteor impacts. The surface of Phobos also possesses an intricate pattern of grooves, which may be cracks that formed after the impact created the moon’s largest crater — a hole about 6 miles (10 km) wide, or nearly half the width of Phobos. They always show the same face to Mars, just as our moon does to Earth.
It remains uncertain how Phobos and Deimos were born. They may have been asteroids captured by Mars’ gravitational pull, or they may have been formed in orbit around Mars the same time the planet came into existence. Ultraviolet light reflected from Phobos provides strong evidence for its capture origin, according to astronomers at the University of Padova in Italy.
Phobos is gradually spiraling toward Mars, drawing about 6 feet (1.8 meters) closer to the red planet each century. Within 50 million years, Phobos will either smash into Mars or break up and form a ring of debris around the planet.
Both moons are potential targets for exploration. One NASA plan envisions bombarding Phobos with small, spiky spherical rovers called hedgehogs.
Research & exploration
The first person to watch Mars with a telescope was Galileo Galilei, and in the century after him, astronomers discovered its polar ice caps. In the 19th and 20th centuries, researchers believed they saw a network of long, straight canals on Mars, hinting at civilization, although later these often proved to be mistaken interpretations of dark regions they saw.
Robot spacecraft began observing Mars in the 1960s, with the United States launching Mariner 4 there in 1964 and Mariners 6 and 7 in 1969. They revealed Mars to be a barren world, without any signs of the life or civilizations people had imagined there. The Soviet Union also launched numerous spacecraft in the 1960s and early 1970s, but most of those missions failed. Mars 2 (1971) and Mars 3 (1971) operated successfully, but were unable to map the surface due to dust storms. In 1971, Mariner 9 orbited Mars, mapping about 80 percent of the planet and discovering its volcanoes and canyons.
NASA’s Viking 1 lander touched down onto the surface of Mars in 1976, the first successful landing onto the Red Planet. It took the first close-up pictures of the Martian surface but found no strong evidence for life.
The next two craft to successfully reach Mars were the Mars Pathfinder, a lander, and Mars Global Surveyor, an orbiter, both launched in 1996. A small robot onboard Pathfinder named Sojourner— the first wheeled rover to explore the surface of another planet — ventured over the planet’s surface analyzing rocks.
In 2001, the United States launched the Mars Odyssey probe, which discovered vast amount of water ice beneath the Martian surface, mostly in the upper three feet (one meter). It remains uncertain whether more water lies underneath, since the probe cannot see water any deeper.
In 2003, the closest Mars had passed to Earth in nearly 60,000 years, NASA launched two rovers, nicknamed Spirit and Opportunity, which explored different regions of the Martian surface, and both found signs that water once flowed on the planet’s surface.
In 2008, NASA sent another mission, Phoenix, to land in the northern plains of Mars and search for water.
In 2011, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, with its rover named Mars Curiosity, began to investigate Martian rocks to determine the geologic processes that created them and find out more about the present and past habitability of Mars. Among its findings is the first meteorite on the surface of the red planet. The rover is currently climbing Mount Sharp and studying the layers of deposition on the hill, to find evidence of ancient water activity.
NASA has two other orbiters working around the planet, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution). The European Space Agency also has two spacecraft orbiting the planet: Mars Express and the Trace Gas Orbiter.
In September 2014, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission also reached the red planet, making it the fourth nation to successfully enter orbit around Mars.
NASA plans to launch a successor rover mission to Curiosity, called Mars 2020. This mission will search for ancient signs of life and, depending on how promising its samples look, it may “cache” the results in safe spots on the Red Planet for a future rover to pick up. Another mission, InSight, will launch in 2018. It will act as a stationary lander and will drill below the surface of Mars to look at the planet’s interior structure.
ESA is working on its own ExoMars rover that should also launch in 2020, and will include a drill to go deep into the Red Planet, collecting soil samples from about 2 meters (6.5 feet).
Mars is far from an easy planet to reach. NASA, Russia, the European Space Agency, China, Japan and the Soviet Union collectively lost many spacecraft in their quest to explore the Red Planet. Notable examples include:
- 1992 — NASA’s Mars Observer
- 1996 — Russia’s Mars 96
- 1998 — NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, Japan’s Nozomi
- 1999 — NASA’s Mars Polar Lander
- 2003 — ESA’s Beagle 2 lander
- 2011 — Russia’s Fobus-Grunt mission to Phobos with the Chinese Yinghuo-1 orbiter
- 2016 — ESA’s Schiaparelli test lander
Manned missions to come
Robots aren’t the only ones looking to buy a ticket to Mars. A workshop group of scientist from government agencies, academia and industry have found that a NASA-led manned mission to Mars should be possible by the 2030s. And NASA isn’t the only one with Martian astronaut hopefuls. The Mars One colony project is looking to send private citizens on a one-way trip to the red planet. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has outlined a Mars mission architecture to eventually build a million-person Martian city. Other nations, including China and Russia, have also said they want to go to Mars.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com contributor.