Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun (after Mercury, Venus and Earth). It resides with Earth (our planet) in the region of the solar system where liquid water can exist on the surface, and therefore the chance that life is (or once was) present on Mars remains a distinct possibility. This also makes Mars the most likely candidate for future human settlement.
Mars is the Roman god of war (Ares is the Greek version), and the planet was probably given this name because of its red color. Mars is frequently referred to as the Red Planet.
When it is in the nighttime sky, Mars is easily visible with the naked eye. Its apparent brightness varies greatly according to its position relative to the Earth. Online sky charts show the current position of Mars (and the other planets) in the sky. More detailed and customized charts can be created with a planetarium program such as Starry Night.
Mars orbits the Sun at a distance of 249,228,730 km at aphelion and 206,644,545 km at perihelion. Its gravity is one third that of Earth. The climate of Mars is Earth-like with seasons. Though Mars is much smaller than Earth, its surface area is about the same as the land surface area of Earth.
Aereography (Martian Geography)
Mars’ orbit is significantly elliptical. One result of this is a temperature variation of about 30° C at the subsolar point between aphelion and perihelion. This has a major influence on Mars’ climate. While the average temperature on Mars is about 218° K (-55° C, -67° F), Martian surface temperatures range widely from as little as 140° K (-133° C, -207° F) at the winter pole to almost 300° K (27° C, 80° F) on the dayside during summer.
The atmosphere of Mars is quite different from that of Earth. It is composed primarily of carbon dioxide with very small amounts of other gases, such as nitrogen and oxygen. Martian air contains only about 1/1,000 as much water as our air, but even this small amount can condense out, forming clouds that ride high in the atmosphere or swirl around the slopes of towering volcanoes. Local patches of early morning fog can form in valleys. At the Viking Lander 2 site, a thin layer of water frost covered the ground each winter.
The average pressure on the surface of Mars is only about 7 millibars (less than 1% of Earth’s), but it varies greatly with altitude from almost 9 millibars in the deepest basins to about 1 millibar at the top of Olympus Mons. But it is thick enough to support very strong winds and vast dust storms that on occasion engulf the entire planet for months. Mars’ thin atmosphere produces a greenhouse effect but it is only enough to raise the surface temperature by 5 degrees (K); much less than what we see on Venus and Earth.
Much of the Martian surface is very old and cratered, but there are also much younger rift valleys, ridges, hills and plains. The southern hemisphere of Mars is predominantly ancient cratered highlands somewhat similar to the Moon. In contrast, most of the northern hemisphere consists of plains which are much younger, lower in elevation and have a much more complex history. An abrupt elevation change of several kilometers seems to occur at the boundary. The reasons for this global dichotomy and abrupt boundary are unknown (some speculate that they are due to a very large impact shortly after Mars’ accretion).
Aereology (Martian Geology)
The interior of Mars is known only by inference from data about the surface and the bulk statistics of the planet. The most likely scenario is a dense core about 1700 km in radius, a molten rocky mantle somewhat denser than the Earth’s and a thin crust. Mars’ relatively low density compared to the other terrestrial planets indicates that its core probably contains a relatively large fraction of sulfur in addition to iron (iron and iron sulfide).
Like Mercury and the Moon, Mars appears to lack active plate tectonics; there is no evidence of horizontal motion of the surface such as the folded mountains so common on Earth. With no lateral plate motion, hot-spots under the crust stay in a fixed position relative to the surface. This, along with the lower surface gravity, may account for the Tharsis bulge and its enormous volcanoes. There is no evidence of current volcanic activity, however. And though Mars may have been more volcanically active in the past, it appears to never have had any plate tectonics.
There is very clear evidence of erosion in many places on Mars including large floods and small river systems. Physical features closely resembling shorelines, gorges, riverbeds and islands have been identified. At some time in the past there was clearly water on the surface. There may have been large lakes or even oceans. But it seems that this occurred only briefly and very long ago; the age of the erosion channels is estimated at nearly 4 billion years. (Valles Marineris was NOT created by running water. It was formed by the stretching and cracking of the crust associated with the creation of the Tharsis bulge.)
Mars has permanent ice caps at both poles composed mostly of solid carbon dioxide (“dry ice”). The ice caps exhibit a layered structure with alternating layers of ice with varying concentrations of dark dust. In the northern summer the carbon dioxide completely sublimes, leaving a residual layer of water ice. It’s not known if a similar layer of water ice exists below the southern cap since its carbon dioxide layer never completely disappears. The mechanism responsible for the layering is unknown but may involve long-term changes in the inclination of Mars’ equator to the plane of its orbit. There may also be water ice hidden below the surface at lower latitudes. The seasonal changes in the extent of the polar caps changes the global atmospheric pressure by about 25% (as measured at the Viking lander sites).
Early in its history, Mars was much more like Earth. As with Earth almost all of its carbon dioxide was used up to form carbonate rocks. But lacking the Earth’s plate tectonics, Mars is unable to recycle any of this carbon dioxide back into its atmosphere and so cannot sustain a significant greenhouse effect. The surface of Mars is therefore much colder than the Earth would be at that distance from the Sun.
Hubble Space Telescope observations have revealed that the conditions observed during the Viking missions may not have been typical. Mars’ atmosphere now seems to be both colder and dryer than measured by the Viking landers.
Large, but not global, weak magnetic fields exist in various regions of Mars. This unexpected finding was made by Mars Global Surveyor just days after it entered Mars orbit. They are probably remnants of an earlier global field that has since disappeared. This may have important implications for the structure of Mars’s interior and for the past history of its atmosphere and hence for the possibility of ancient life.
Martian channels and the polar ice caps were among the earliest observed features, for they can be seen with small telescopes from Earth's view point. The Face had been one of the most mystic geological sites until detailed 3D data revealed its rather unspectacular shape.
Except for Earth, Mars has the most highly varied and interesting terrain of any of the terrestrial planets, some of it quite spectacular:
- Olympus Mons: the largest mountain in the Solar System, rising 24 km (78,000 ft.) above the surrounding plain. Its base is more than 500 km in diameter and is rimmed by a cliff 6 km (20,000 ft) high.
- Tharsis: a huge bulge on the Martian surface that is about 4000 km across and 10 km high.
- Valles Marineris: a system of canyons 4000 km long and from 2 to 7 km deep.
- Hellas Planitia: an impact crater in the southern hemisphere over 6 km deep and 2000 km in diameter.
The first spacecraft to visit Mars was Mariner 4 in 1965, while the first soft touchdown was accomplished by Mars 3. Several others followed including the two Viking landers in 1976. Ending a long 20 year hiatus, Mars Pathfinder landed successfully on Mars on 1997 July 4. It was followed by the Mars Exploration Rover mission, the Phoenix lander, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Science Lab.
Life on Mars
The Viking landers performed experiments to determine the existence of life on Mars. The results were negative. Optimists point out that only two tiny samples were measured and not from the most favorable locations. More experiments will be done by future missions to Mars.
A small number of meteorites (the SNC meteorites) are believed to have originated on Mars.
On 1996 Aug 6, David McKay et al announced the first identification of organic compounds in a Martian meteorite. The authors further suggest that these compounds, in conjunction with a number of other mineralogical features observed in the rock, may be evidence of ancient Martian microorganisms. Exciting as this is, it is important to note while this evidence is strong it by no means establishes the fact of extraterrestrial life. There have also bee several contradictory studies published since the McKay paper. Remember, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”