Probably the only planet that could be eligible to harbor life in our solar system, besides Earth is our nearest neighbor - Mars. It's the red dot that looms in the evening sky. Not surprisingly, it's also the most sought after planets in NASA's exploration program in outer space right now. Mars has always appealed to the imagination of earthlings. The ultimate dream is a manned mission to Mars in the near future, which would truly be the next big milestone after the Moon landing. Already, many rover and orbiting spacecraft missions have brought in wealth of data and high resolution images that have revealed many Martian secrets. In this article, we will unravel these secrets for you. . .
Mars in Ancient Mythology
Mars is etched into our mythology as the harbinger of war and calamity. Our ancestors connected the happenings on Earth with the patterns they saw in the sky and Mars was somehow singled out as the symbol of war and later God of war in Greek myth as well as in other mythologies world over. This may be due to its red color, which is normally associated with danger. Basically, Mars has a reputation of being a deal breaker.
With the invention of the telescope, people observed the red planet up close for the first time. This triggered even more interest as the new information changed its status from just a red dot to a planet with the possibility of life on it.
Now, at the beginning of the third millennium, man has sent space probes which have landed on the surface of Mars and sent back real pictures of the red planet. Scientific research and exploration is carried out today with the ultimate goal of colonizing the planet. Let us look at some of the most startling facts about the red planet and the high resolution images of its various features, which we present, courtesy of the many space missions launched by NASA and other space agencies.
Interesting Facts About Mars
Mars is an entirely new world out there; waiting to be explored. Here are some glimpses of the red planet in all its glory. (Click on the images to take a look at a larger and higher resolution version)
Mars is a Puny Planet Compared to Earth!
The radius of Mars is approximately half that of our planet Earth. It's also comparatively less dense. The whole volume of Mars is roughly 15% that of the Earth, while its mass is 11% that of Earth. So, Martian gravity is substantially weaker, compared to gravity on Earth. Its crust is however, thicker than of Earth.
All in all, as you can see through the size comparison made in the image above, Mars is really small compared to Earth. Its surface features are reminiscent of Earth, with periodically changing seasons like our planet. It has an axial tilt similar to that of Earth, as well as polar ice caps. All in all, both terrestrial planets resemble each other a lot.
Tallest Volcano in the Solar System is on Mars!
Olympus Mons, pictured above, a shield volcano on Martian surface, is the highest of all observed volcanic mountains, in the terrestrial worlds of our Solar system. It stands at a record height of 22 km from base to top. That makes it roughly, three times as high as Mount Everest. Its entire expanse extends for more than 600 km, making it roughly the size of Arizona.
As you can see in the image, its huge size and altitude makes it visible from space quite easily, being located in the North Western hemisphere of Mars, in what is known as the Tharsis region.
Mars has the Largest Canyon in the Solar System!
Valles Marineris, pictured above, a canyon that extends along the Martian equator, like a scar, is the largest canyon, yet observed in our solar system. It extends roughly, 4,000 km in length, which makes it almost as long as Europe. It is as wide as 200 km and at its deepest, plunges to a depth of roughly 7 km. It is the most prominent feature of the Martian equator, created by tectonic and erosional forces at work. The canyon is a long and wide crack in the Martian crust.
So, if you think the Grand Canyon is the last word on canyons, think again.
Mars has Water!
Water exists on Mars, in the form of ice, under its polar ice caps. In the image above, you can clearly see the white patch of ice at the poles. There is evidence that water once flowed freely on the surface of Mars, but now its low atmospheric pressure ensures that no water can flow or stay on its surface. Water exists in the polar and mid-latitude regions under the surface of the planet in the form of ice.
Still, the existence of life on Mars is a matter of debate and mystery, which awaits observational evidence. Due to inherently low atmospheric pressure, liquid water cannot exist on Mars for long. Predominantly large volumes of water is stored in the form of ice, in the south pole ice caps. Scientists have estimated that if the south polar ice cap were to melt, the whole planetary surface would be logged with water, 11 meters deep!
Mars is Red Due to Rust!
The secret behind the reddish orange coloring of Mars is rust. The Martian surface is colored that way due to the prevalence of ferric oxide on its surface, which is commonly known as rust. As you can see in the accompanying picture, the entire surface has a reddish orange tinge, endowing the planet with its characteristic color. The image was clicked by one of the rovers that landed on the surface and took high resolution images, which were beamed back to Earth.
Mars has two Moons!
Mars has two moons, Phobos (Greek word for 'Fear') and Deimos (Greek word for 'Terror'), pictured above in that order. These Mars moons are probably captured asteroids, both of which are irregular moons of small size, as can be seen in the images above. They were discovered in 1877, by Asaph Hall, an American astronomer, using the largest refractor telescope of that time.
Phobos is the massive of the two moons, with a mass, which is more than seven times that of Deimos. It's unstable orbit has put it on a collision course with Mars in the near future.
Mars has no Magnetosphere!
Mars has no magnetic field, due to which its ultra-thin blanket of atmosphere, is vulnerable to destruction by solar winds. This thin layer of atmosphere, visible in the picture above, is made up of CO2 as the prime and largest component, followed by N2, Argon and O2 in trace amounts. Seasons on Mars resemble the ones on Earth, due to the similar amount of axial tilt, but they are twice as longer. That's because a year on Mars is about 687 days, which is almost twice as long as an Earth year.
There is much more to be known about Mars and a manned mission launched in the future, will reveal a lot more. For more information on the geological features of Mars, a great resource is the Google Mars page, which provides you with access to the 3D maps of the red planet! If these facts about Mars, inspire one of you to take it up as a research subject, we will consider our job to be well done.