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Mars, with polar ice caps visible.
Mars, with polar ice caps visible.
North Polar region with icecap. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
North Polar region with icecap. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the solar system. It is named after Mars, the god of war in Roman mythology (the counterpart to Ares, the god of war in Greek mythology) because of its red color as viewed in the night sky. This feature also earned it the name of "the Red Planet." Mars has two moons (Phobos and Deimos) which are both small and oddly-shaped, possibly being captured asteroids. The prefix areo- refers to Mars.

Its symbol, ♂ (a circle with a small arrow pointing out from behind it), is a stylized representation of the god Mars' shield and spear.


Physical characteristics

Mars has always fascinated people. Its red, fiery appearance is caused by Iron Oxide (rust) on its surface. Mars has only a quarter the surface area of the Earth and only one-tenth the mass (though its surface area is approximately equal to that of the Earth's dry land because Mars lacks oceans). The solar day on Mars is almost the same length as it is on earth: 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds.


Mars' atmosphere is thin: the air pressure on the surface is only 750 pascals, about 0.75 percent of the average on Earth. However, the scale height of the atmosphere is about 11 km, somewhat higher than Earth's 6 km. The atmosphere on Mars is 95 percent carbon dioxide, 3 percent nitrogen, 1.6 percent argon, and traces of oxygen and water. In 2003, methane was also discovered in the atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes, and possibly confirmed in March 2004 by the Mars Express Orbiter, present measurements state a average methane concetration of about 10 ppb (see reference).

The presence of methane on Mars is very intriguing, since as an unstable gas it indicates that there must be (or have been within the last few hundred years) a source of the gas on the planet. Volcanic activity, comet impacts and the existence of life in the form of microorganisms such as methanogens are among possible but as yet unproven sources. The methane appears in patches, which suggests that it is being rapidly broken down (and so is presumably also continually being released to the atmosphere) before it has time to become uniformly distributed in the atmosphere. Plans are now being made to look for other 'companion' gases that may suggest which sources are most likely; in the Earth's oceans biological methane production tends to be accompanied by ethane, while volcanic methane is accompanied by sulfur dioxide.

Apart from methane release and breakdown, other aspects of the atmosphere are also dynamic, with water vapor moving from one pole to the other with the change between summer and winter, giving rise to Earth-like frost and large cirrus clouds [1] ( of water-ice that were photographed by the Opportunity rover in 2004.


Observations of the magnetic fields on Mars by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft have revealed that parts of the planet's crust has been magnetized in alternating bands, typically measuring 100 miles wide by 600 miles long, in a similar pattern to those found on the ocean floors of Earth. One interesting theory, published in 1999 is that these bands could be evidence of the past operation of plate tectonics on Mars, although this has yet to be proven [2] ( If true, the processes involved may have helped to sustain an Earth-like atmosphere by transporting carbon rich rocks to the surface, while the presence of a magnetic field would have helped to protect the planet from cosmic radiation. Other explanations have also been proposed.

Missing image
Microscopic rock forms indicating past signs of water taken by Opportunity

Amongst the findings from the Opportunity rover is the presence of hematite on Mars in the form of small spheres on the Meridiani Planum. The spheres are only a few millimeters in diameter and are believed to have formed as rock deposits under watery conditions billions of years ago. Other minerals have also been found containing forms of sulfur, iron or bromine such as jarosite. This and other evidence led a group of 50 scientists to conclude in the December 9, 2004 edition of the journal Science that "Liquid water was once intermittently present at the Martian surface at Meridiani, and at times it saturated the subsurface. Because liquid water is a key prerequisite for life, we infer conditions at Meridiani may have been habitable for some period of time in Martian history". On the opposite side of the planet the mineral goethite, which (unlike hematite) only forms in the presence of water, along with other evidence of water, has also been found by the Spirit rover in the "Columbia Hills".

In 1996, researchers studying a meteorite (ALH84001) believed to have originated from Mars reported features which they attributed to microfossils left by life on Mars. As of 2005, this interpretation remains controversial with no consensus having emerged.


The dichotomy of Martian topography is striking: northern plains flattened by lava flows contrast with the southern highlands, pitted and cratered by ancient impacts. The surface of Mars as seen from Earth is consequently 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.

Mars has polar ice caps that contain frozen water and carbon dioxide that change with the Martian seasons-the carbon dioxide ice sublimates in summer, uncovering a surface of layered rocks, and forms again in winter. An extinct shield volcano, Olympus Mons (Mount Olympus), is at 27 km the highest mountain in the solar system. It is in a vast upland region called Tharsis, containing several large volcanos. See list of mountains on Mars. Mars also has the solar system's largest canyon system, Valles Marineris or the Mariner Valley, which is 4000 km long and 7 km deep. Mars is also scarred by a number of impact craters. The largest of these is the Hellas impact basin, covered with light red sand. See list of craters on Mars.

The difference between Mars' highest and lowest points is nearly 31 km (from the top of Olympus Mons at an altitude of 27 km to the bottom of the Hellas impact basin at an altitude of 4 km below the datum). In comparison, the difference between Earth's highest and lowest points (Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench) is only 19.7 km. Combined with the planets' different radii, this means Mars is nearly three times "rougher" than Earth.

The International Astronomical Union's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature is responsible for naming Martian surface features.

Missing image
Topographic map of Mars, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Notable features include the Tharsis volcanoes in the west (including Olympus Mons), Valles Marineris to the east of Tharsis, and Hellas Basin in the southern hemisphere.

Other notes:

Zero elevation: Since Mars has no oceans and hence no 'sea level', a zero-elevation surface or mean gravity surface must be selected. The datum for Mars is defined by the fourth-degree and fourth-order spherical harmonic gravity field, with the zero altitude defined by the 610.5 Pa (6.105 mbar) atmospheric pressure surface (approximately 0.6% of Earth's) at a temperature of 273.01 K. This pressure and temperature correspond to the triple point of water.

Zero meridian: Mars' equator is defined by its rotation, but the location of its Prime Meridian was specified, as was Earth's, by choice of an arbitrary point which was accepted by later observers. The German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich M䤬er selected a small circular feature as a reference point when they produced the first systematic chart of Mars features in 1830-32. In 1877, their choice was adopted as the prime meridian by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli when he began work on his notable 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') along the line of Beer and M䤬er, was chosen by Merton Davies of the RAND Corporation to provide a more precise definition of 0.0° longitude when he established a planetographic control point network.


Mars has an important place in human imagination due to the belief by some that life existed on Mars, due mainly to observations by Percival Lowell of Martian canals, apparently artificial linear features on the surface that he asserted were canals, and due to seasonal changes in the brightness of some areas that were thought to be caused by vegetation growth. This gave rise to many stories concerning Martians. The linear features are now known to be mostly non-existent or, in some cases, dry ancient watercourses. The color changes have been ascribed to dust storms.

Mars' moons

Missing image
Orbits of Phobos and Deimos (to scale)

Both Phobos and Deimos are tidally locked with Mars, always pointing the same face towards it. Since Phobos orbits around Mars faster than the planet itself rotates, tidal forces are slowly but steadily decreasing its orbital radius. At some point in the future Phobos will be broken up by gravitational forces (see Roche limit). Deimos, on the other hand, is far enough away that its orbit is being slowly boosted instead.

Both satellites were discovered in 1877 by Asaph Hall, and are named after the characters Phobos and Deimos in Greek mythology, sons of the Greek god Ares.

Mars' natural satellites
Name Diameter (km) Mass (kg) Mean orbital
radius (km)
Orbital period
Phobos 22.2 (27 × 21.6 × 18.8) 1.08×1016 9378 7.66 hours
Deimos 12.6 (10 × 12 × 16) 2×1015 23,400 30.35 hours

As seen from Mars, Phobos has an angular diameter of about 12', while Deimos has an angular diameter of about 2'. The Sun's angular diameter, by contrast, is about 21'.

Phobos  the , as seen by Mars Rover  on  .  See
Phobos transits the Sun, as seen by Mars Rover Opportunity on March 10 2004. See Transit of Phobos from Mars
Missing image
Deimos transits the Sun, as seen by Mars Rover Opportunity on March 4 2004. See Transit of Deimos from Mars

The exploration of Mars

Main article: Exploration of Mars

Missing image
Viking Lander 1 site (click for detailed description).

Dozens of spacecraft, including orbiters, landers, and rovers, have been sent to Mars by the Soviet Union, the United States, Europe, and Japan to study the planet's surface, climate, and geography. Roughly two-thirds of all spacecraft destined for Mars have failed in one manner or another before completing or even beginning their missions. Part of this high failure rate can be ascribed to technical problems, but enough have either failed or lost communications for no apparent reason that some researchers half-jokingly speak of an Earth-Mars "Bermuda Triangle" or of a Great Galactic Ghoul which subsists on a diet of Mars probes.

Among the most successful missions are the Mars probe program, the Mariner and Viking programs, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, and Mars Odyssey. Global Surveyor has taken pictures of gullies and debris flow features that suggest there may be current sources of liquid water, similar to an aquifer, at or near the surface of the planet. Mars Odyssey determined that there are vast deposits of water ice in the upper three meters of Mars' soil within 60° latitude of the south pole.

In 2003, the ESA launched the Mars Express craft consisting of the Mars Express Orbiter and the lander Beagle 2. Mars Express Orbiter confirmed the presence of water ice and carbon dioxide ice at the planet's south pole. NASA had previously confirmed their presence at the north pole of Mars. Attempts to contact the Beagle 2 failed and it was declared lost in early February 2004.

Missing image
Cahokia Paronama.

Also in 2003, NASA launched the twin Mars Exploration Rovers named Spirit (MER-A) and Opportunity (MER-B). Both missions landed successfully in January 2004 and have met or exceeded all their targets; while a 90-day nominal mission was planned, as of February 2005, their missions have been extended twice and they continue to return science, although some mechanical faults have occurred. Among the most significant science return has been evidence of liquid water some time in the past at both landing sites. In addition, for the first time, dust devils imaged from ground-level have been detected moving across the surface of Mars by Spirit (MER-A). (See picture below).

Missing image
Dust devil on Mars, photographed by the Mars rover Spirit

Observation of Mars

The "Ares Vallis" area as photographed by Mars Pathfinder (click for detailed description).
The "Ares Vallis" area as photographed by Mars Pathfinder (click for detailed description).

Earth passes Mars every 780 days (or two years plus seven weeks) at a distance of about 80,000,000 km. However, this varies because the orbits are elliptical. To a naked-eye observer, Mars usually shows a distinct yellow, orange or reddish colour, and varies in brightness more than any other planet as seen from Earth over the course of its orbit, due to the fact that when furthest away from the Earth it is more than seven times as far from the latter as when it is closest (and can be lost in the Sun's glare for months at a time when least favourably positioned). At its most favourable times — which occur twice every 32 years, alternately at 15 and 17-year intervals, and always between late July and late September — Mars shows a wealth of surface detail to a telescope. Especially noticeable, even at low magnification, are the polar ice caps.

On August 27, 2003, at 9:51:13 UT, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years: 55,758,006 km (approximately 35 million miles) without Light-time correction. This close approach came about because Mars was one day from opposition and about three days from its perihelion, making Mars particularly easy to see from Earth. The last time it came so close is estimated to have been on September 12, 57,617 BC. Detailed analysis of the solar system's gravitational landscape forecasts an even closer approach in 2287. However, to keep this in perspective, this record approach was only an imperceptibly tiny fraction less than other recent close approaches that occur four times every 284 years. For instance, the minimum distance on August 22 1924 was 0.37284 AU, compared to 0.37271 AU on August 27 2003, and the minimum distance on August 24 2208 will be 0.37278 AU.

A transit of the Earth as seen from Mars will occur on November 10, 2084. At that time the Sun, the Earth and Mars will be exactly in a line. There are also transits of Mercury and transits of Venus, and the moon Deimos is of sufficiently small angular diameter that its partial "eclipses" of the Sun are best considered transits (see Transit of Deimos from Mars).


Stationary, retrorad Opposition Stationary, prograd Conjunction to sun
July 30th, 2003 August 28th, 2003 September 29th, 2003 September 15th, 2004
October 1st, 2005 November 7th, 2005 December 10th, 2005 October 23rd, 2006
November 15th, 2007 December 24th, 2007 January 30th, 2008 December 5th, 2008
December 21st, 2009 January 29th, 2010 March 11th, 2010 February 4th, 2011

Martian meteorites

Main article: Martian meteorites

A handful of objects are known that are surely meteorites and may be of Martian origin. Two of them may show signs of ancient bacterial activity. On August 6, 1996 NASA announced that analysis of the ALH 84001 meteorite thought to have come from Mars, shows some features that may be fossils of single-celled organisms, although this idea is controversial.

In Solar System Research (March 2004, vol 38, page 97) it was suggested that the unique Kaidun meteorite, recovered from Yemen, may have originated on the Martian moon of Phobos.

On April 14, 2004, NASA revealed that a rock known as "Bounce", studied by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, was similar in composition to the meteorite EETA79001-B, discovered in Antarctica in 1979. The rock may have been ejected from the same crater as the meteorite, or from another crater in the same area of the Martian surface.

Life on Mars

Main article: Life on Mars

Evidence exists that the planet once was significantly more habitable than today, but the question whether living organisms ever actually existed there is an open one. Some researchers think that a certain rock which is believed to have originated on Mars - specifically, meteorite ALH84001 - does contain evidence of past biologic activity, but no consensus about these claims has been achieved so far.

The Viking probes carried experiments designed to detect microorganisms in Martian soil at their respective landing sites, but are thought to have come back empty in this respect. Also, present biologic activity is one of the explanations that have been suggested for the presence of traces of methane within the Martian atmosphere, but other explanations not involving life are generally considered more likely.

If colonization is going to happen, Mars seems a likely choice due to its rather hospitable conditions (compared with other planets, it is most like Earth).

Mars in various cultures

Ancient Egypt

Mars happens to be intertwined with Ancient Egypt in curious ways:

The planet was known as "Horus the Red" (Hor Dshr), and for a long time the Sphinx was painted red. They also called it "Horus of the Horizon" (Horakhti), which was the same name given to the Great Sphinx. Because of Mars' apparent retrograde motion, Egyptians said that it "traveled backwards." The Egyptian capital Cairo, situated adjacent to Giza, derives its name from Al Qahira (Arabic name for Cairo) denoting Mars. (More literally it means ?the victorious?.)

China, Korea and Japan and Vietnam

Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture designates the planet Mars with the characters 火星, which translate as "Fire Star." This is based on Five Elements which was traditionally used to classify natural elements.


In Jyotish, Mars is known in Sanskrit as Mangal (auspicious), Angaraka (burning coal), and Kuja (the fair one). It represents energetic action, confidence and ego.

Also, just as the Great Sphinx is the hybrid of man and a lion, in Ancient Hindu myths Mars is Nr-Simha, the "Man-Lion".

Mars in fiction

Main article: Mars in fiction

Because of early scientific speculations that its surface conditions might be capable of supporting life, Mars has become one of the most often mentioned real planets in science fiction.

In The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Martians have copper skin. They have humanlike emotions and the ability to read minds(telepathy). They are a dying race whose culture is quite advanced.

The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) by Kim Stanley Robinson details a human colonization of Mars based on more current scientific knowledge of the Red Planet.

In The Heritage Trilogy and The Legacy Trilogy, by Ian Douglas, the Cydonia region of Mars is home to ancient alien ruins where mummified early humans are found in 2040.

Mars in astrology

Main article: Planets in astrology#Mars

According to Marcus Manilius (1st century AD) in his epic (8000 verses) poem Astronomica, Mars is ardent, and presides over the genitals. Called "The Bringer Of War" in Alan Leo's What is a Horoscope?, since the planet is associated with the Roman god of war, Mars in Western astrology is associated with confident, aggressive personalities. Mars is the ruling planet of Aries. Before the discovery of Pluto, Mars was also the ruling planet of Scorpio (and still is for the more traditional astrologers).

In Chinese astrology, Mars is ruled by the element Fire. It is the fourth planet from the sun.

Further reading

Mars in religion

Mars in popular culture

In the television show, Futurama, Leo and Inez Wong(parents of Amy Wong) own the whole Western hemisphere of Mars and the solar system's most presteigous college, Mars University, is located there.

Mars was the home planet of the Biker Mice from Mars: Throttle, Modo & Vinnie. Other Martian Mice includ Carbine, Stoker, and Rimfire.

See also

External links


Missing image
Microscopic rock forms indicating past signs of water taken by MER-B

Water on Mars

Mars exploration

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  • Krasnopolsky, V. A., J. P. Maillard, T. C. Owen, Detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere: evidence for life?, Icarus, 172 (2), 537-547.

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