Mars (Space & Science)

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Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. The planet is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. It is often described as the "Red Planet", as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth. The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the highest known mountain within the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, the largest canyon. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature.

Until the first flyby of Mars occurred in 1965, by Mariner 4, many speculated about the presence of liquid water on the planet's surface. This was based on observed periodic variations in light and dark patches, particularly in the polar latitudes, which appeared to be seas and continents; long, dark striations were interpreted by some as irrigation channels for liquid water. These straight line features were later explained as optical illusions, yet of all the planets in the Solar System other than Earth, Mars is the most likely to harbor liquid water, and thus to harbor life. Geological evidence gathered by unmanned missions suggest that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface, while small geyser-like water flows may have occurred during the past decade. In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles, and at mid-latitudes. The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.

Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small and irregularly shaped. These may be captured asteroids, similar to 5261 Eureka, a Martian Trojan asteroid. Mars is currently host to three functional orbiting spacecraft: Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. On the surface are the two Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) and several inert landers and rovers, both successful and unsuccessful. The Phoenix lander completed its mission on the surface in 2008. Observations by NASA's now-defunct Mars Global Surveyor show evidence that parts of the southern polar ice cap have been receding.

Mars can easily be seen from Earth with the naked eye. Its apparent magnitude reaches −3.0 a brightness surpassed only by Venus, the Moon, and the Sun.

Physical characteristics

Mars has approximately half the radius of Earth. It is less dense than Earth, having about 15% of Earth's volume and 11% of the mass. Its surface area is only slightly less than the total area of Earth's dry land. While Mars is larger and more massive than Mercury, Mercury has a higher density. This results in the two planets having a nearly identical gravitational pull at the surface—that of Mars is stronger by less than 1%. Mars is also roughly intermediate in size, mass, and surface gravity between Earth and Earth's Moon (the Moon is about half the diameter of Mars, whereas Earth is twice; the Earth is about nine times more massive than Mars, and the Moon one-ninth as massive). The red-orange appearance of the Martian surface is caused by iron(III) oxide, more commonly known as hematite, or rust


Based on orbital observations and the examination of the Martian meteorite collection, the surface of Mars appears to be composed primarily of basalt. Some evidence suggests that a portion of the Martian surface is more silica-rich than typical basalt, and may be similar to andesitic rocks on Earth; however, these observations may also be explained by silica glass. Much of the surface is deeply covered by finely grained iron(III) oxide dust.

Although Mars has no evidence of a current structured global magnetic field, observations show that parts of the planet's crust have been magnetized, and that alternating polarity reversals of its dipole field have occurred in the past. This paleomagnetism of magnetically susceptible minerals has properties that are very similar to the alternating bands found on the ocean floors of Earth. One theory, published in 1999 and re-examined in October 2005 (with the help of the Mars Global Surveyor), is that these bands demonstrate plate tectonics on Mars four billion years ago, before the planetary dynamo ceased to function and caused the planet's magnetic field to fade away.

Current models of the planet's interior imply a core region about 1,480 km in radius, consisting primarily of iron with about 14–17% sulfur. This iron sulfide core is partially fluid, and has twice the concentration of the lighter elements than exist at Earth's core. The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle that formed many of the tectonic and volcanic features on the planet, but now appears to be inactive. The average thickness of the planet's crust is about 50 km, with a maximum thickness of 125 km. Earth's crust, averaging 40 km, is only one third as thick as Mars’ crust, relative to the sizes of the two planets.

During the Solar system formation, Mars was created out of the protoplanetary disk that orbited the Sun as the result of a stochastic process of run-away accretion. Mars has many distinctive chemical features caused by its position in the Solar System. Elements with comparatively low boiling points such as chlorine, phosphorus and sulphur are much more common on Mars than Earth; these elements were probably removed from areas closer to the Sun by the young Sun's powerful solar wind.

After the formation of the planets, all were subjected to the "Late Heavy Bombardment". About 60% of the surface of Mars shows an impact record from that era. Much of the rest of the surface of Mars is probably underlain by immense impact basins that date from this time—there is evidence of an enormous impact basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars, spanning 10,600 km by 8,500 km, or roughly four times larger than the Moon's South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest impact basin yet discovered. This theory suggests that Mars was struck by a Pluto-sized body about four billion years ago. The event, thought to be the cause of the Martian hemispheric dichotomy, created the smooth Borealis basin that covers 40% of the planet.

The geological history of Mars can be split into many epochs, but the following are the three primary epochs:

Noachian epoch (named after Noachis Terra): Formation of the oldest extant surfaces of Mars, 4.5 billion years ago to 3.5 billion years ago. Noachian age surfaces are scarred by many large impact craters. The Tharsis bulge, a volcanic upland, is thought to have formed during this period, with extensive flooding by liquid water late in the epoch.
Hesperian epoch (named after Hesperia Planum): 3.5 billion years ago to 2.9–3.3 billion years ago. The Hesperian epoch is marked by the formation of extensive lava plains.
Amazonian epoch (named after Amazonis Planitia): 2.9–3.3 Gyr ago billion years ago to present. Amazonian regions have few meteorite impact craters, but are otherwise quite varied. Olympus Mons formed during this period, along with lava flows elsewhere on Mars.
Some geological activity is still taking place on Mars. The Athabasca Valles is home to sheet-like lava flows up to about 200 Mya. Water flows in the grabens called the Cerberus Fossae occurred less than 20 Mya, indicating equally recent volcanic intrusions. On February 19, 2008, images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed evidence of an avalanche from a 700 m high cliff


Although better remembered for mapping the Moon, Johann Heinrich Mädler and Wilhelm Beer were the first "areographers". They began by establishing that most of Mars’ surface features were permanent, and more precisely determining the planet's rotation period. In 1840, Mädler combined ten years of observations and drew the first map of Mars. Rather than giving names to the various markings, Beer and Mädler simply designated them with letters; Meridian Bay (Sinus Meridiani) was thus feature "a."

Today, features on Mars are named from a number of sources. Large albedo features retain many of the older names, but are often updated to reflect new knowledge of the nature of the features. For example, Nix Olympica (the snows of Olympus) has become Olympus Mons (Mount Olympus). The surface of Mars as seen from Earth is divided into two kinds of areas, with differing albedo. The paler plains covered with dust and sand rich in reddish iron oxides were once thought of as Martian 'continents' and given names like Arabia Terra (land of Arabia) or Amazonis Planitia (Amazonian plain). The dark features were thought to be seas, hence their names Mare Erythraeum, Mare Sirenum and Aurorae Sinus. The largest dark feature seen from Earth is Syrtis Major. The permanent northern polar ice cap is named Planum Boreum, while the southern cap is called Planum Australe.

Mars’ equator is defined by its rotation, but the location of its Prime Meridian was specified, as was Earth's (at Greenwich), by choice of an arbitrary point; Mädler and Beer selected a line in 1830 for their first maps of Mars. After the spacecraft Mariner 9 provided extensive imagery of Mars in 1972, a small crater (later called Airy-0), located in the Sinus Meridiani ("Middle Bay" or "Meridian Bay"), was chosen for the definition of 0.0° longitude to coincide with the original selection.

Since Mars has no oceans and hence no 'sea level', a zero-elevation surface or mean gravity surface also had to be selected. Zero altitude is defined by the height at which there is 610.5 Pa (6.105 mbar) of atmospheric pressure. This pressure corresponds to the triple point of water, and is about 0.6% of the sea level surface pressure on Earth (0.006 atm).


Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars due to its low atmospheric pressure, except at the lowest elevations for short periods. However, the two polar ice caps appear to be made largely of water. The volume of water ice in the south polar ice cap, if melted, would be sufficient to cover the entire planetary surface to a depth of 11 meters. A permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°.

Large quantities of water ice are thought to be trapped underneath the thick cryosphere of Mars. Radar data from Mars Express and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show large quantities of water ice both at the poles (July 2005) and at mid-latitudes (November 2008). The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.

A large release of liquid water is thought to have occurred when the Valles Marineris formed early in the history of Mars, forming massive outflow channels. A smaller outflow may have occurred when the Cerberus Fossae chasm opened about 5 million years ago, leaving a supposed sea of frozen ice still visible on the Elysium Planitia, centered at Cerberus Palus. However, the morphology of this region may correspond to the pooling of lava flows, causing a superficial morphology similar to ice flows, which probably draped the terrain established by earlier massive floods of Athabasca Valles. The rough surface texture at decimeter (dm) scales, a thermal inertia comparable to that of the Gusev plains, and the presence of hydrovolcanic cones, are consistent with the lava flow hypothesis. Furthermore, the stoichiometric mass fraction of water in this area, to tens of centimeter depths, is only about 4%, which is easily attributable to hydrated minerals, and inconsistent with the presence of near-surface ice.

The high resolution Mars Orbiter Camera on the Mars Global Surveyor has taken pictures which give much more detail about the history of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Despite the many giant flood channels and associated tree-like network of tributaries found on Mars, there are no smaller scale structures that would indicate the origin of the flood waters. Weathering processes may have denuded these, indicating that the river valleys are old features. High resolution observations from spacecraft show thousands of features along crater and canyon walls that appear similar to terrestrial gullies. The gullies tend to be in the highlands of the southern hemisphere and to face the Equator; all are poleward of 30° latitude. No partially degraded gullies have formed by weathering and no superimposed impact craters have been observed, indicating that these are very young features.

Two photographs, taken six years apart, show a gully on Mars with what appears to be new deposits of sediment. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, argues that only the flow of material with a high liquid water content could produce such a debris pattern and colouring. Whether the water results from precipitation, underground or another source remains an open question. However, alternative scenarios have been suggested, including the possibility of the deposits being caused by carbon dioxide frost or by the movement of dust on the Martian surface.

Further evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars comes from the detection of specific minerals such as hematite and goethite, both of which sometimes form in the presence of water. Some of the evidence believed to indicate ancient water basins and flows has been negated by higher resolution studies taken at resolution about 30 cm by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, in 2004, Opportunity detected the presence of the mineral jarosite on "El Capitan", a rock on the outcrop of Opportunity Ledge. Jarosite forms only in the presence of acidic water, and the presence of jarosite is seen as proof that water once existed on Mars.


Mars lost its magnetosphere 4 billion years ago, so the solar wind interacts directly with the Martian ionosphere, lowering the atmospheric density by stripping away atoms from the outer layer. Both Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express have detected these ionised atmospheric particles trailing off into space behind Mars. Compared to Earth, the atmosphere of Mars is quite rarefied. Atmospheric pressure on the surface ranges from a low of 30 Pa (0.030 kPa) on Olympus Mons to over 1,155 Pa (1.155 kPa) in the Hellas Planitia, with a mean pressure at the surface level of 600 Pa (0.60 kPa). The surface pressure of Mars is equal to the pressure found 35 km above the Earth's surface. This is less than 1% of the Earth's surface pressure (101.3 kPa). The scale height of the atmosphere is about 10.8 km, which is higher than Earth's (6 km) because the surface gravity of Mars is only about 38% of Earth's, an effect offset by both the lower temperature and 50% higher average molecular weight of the atmosphere of Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars consists of 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and contains traces of oxygen and water. The atmosphere is quite dusty, containing particulates about 1.5 µm in diameter which give the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface.[96]

Methane has been detected in the Martian atmosphere with a concentration of about 30 ppb by volume; it occurs in extended plumes, and the profiles imply that the methane was released from discrete regions. In northern midsummer, the principal plume contained 19,000 metric tons of methane, with an estimated source strength of 0.6 kilogram per second. The profiles suggest that there may be two local source regions, the first centered near 30° N, 260° W and the second near 0°, 310° W. It is estimated that Mars must produce 270 ton/year of methane.[98][100]

The implied methane destruction lifetime may be as long as about 4 Earth years and as short as about 0.6 Earth years. This rapid turnover would indicate an active source of the gas on the planet. Volcanic activity, cometary impacts, and the presence of methanogenic microbial life forms are among possible sources. Methane could also be produced by a non-biological process called serpentinization[b] involving water, carbon dioxide, and the mineral olivine, which is known to be common on Mars


Of all the planets in the Solar System, the seasons of Mars are the most Earth-like, due to the similar tilts of the two planets' rotational axes. However, the lengths of the Martian seasons are about twice those of Earth's, as Mars’ greater distance from the Sun leads to the Martian year being about two Earth years long. Martian surface temperatures vary from lows of about -87 °C during the polar winters to highs of up to -5 °C in summers. The wide range in temperatures is due to the thin atmosphere which cannot store much solar heat, the low atmospheric pressure, and the low thermal inertia of Martian soil. The planet is also 1.52 times as far from the sun as Earth, resulting in just 43% of the amount of sunlight.

If Mars had an Earth-like orbit, its seasons would be similar to Earth's because its axial tilt is similar to Earth's. However, the comparatively large eccentricity of the Martian orbit has a significant effect. Mars is near perihelion when it is summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north, and near aphelion when it is winter in the southern hemisphere and summer in the north. As a result, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are more extreme and the seasons in the northern are milder than would otherwise be the case. The summer temperatures in the south can reach up to 30 °C warmer than the equivalent summer temperatures in the north.

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