Mars is one of Earth’s neighbors and possibly one of the only planets that hosted life forms at one point. There are so many fascinating facts about the Red Planet that most people don’t know!
A Small but Mighty Planet
While Mars may be intimidating with its exterior and harsh climate, it's the one of the smallest in the solar system, second only to Mercury. Mars has a radius of 2,106 miles, while Earth’s is 3,958 miles.
The radius is any line segment from its center to its perimeter. Driving across the United States, which is 2,897 miles long, would still be longer than Mars’s radius. Mars is about half the size of Earth. As NASA explains it, “If Earth were the size of a nickel, Mars would be about as big as a raspberry.”
A Day on Mars
A solar day is the cycle from daytime to nighttime. On Earth, a solar day is 24 hours, while on Mars, a solar day is 24 hours and 37 minutes long. That means a full day on Mars is only about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth. The axis of the planet determines a day.
If humankind ended up living on Mars, it would be pretty easy to adjust to the new daily schedule. Furthermore, imagine all the things people could do with that extra time. It is at least two episodes of Friends! Or spare time to do a yoga class.
Named After a Roman God
Mars was the Roman god of war. He was known as a level-headed figure, differing from his Greek counterpoint, Ares. Mars was worshipped all over Rome and had many festivals dedicated toward him, whereas Ares was not as favored by the Greeks. Mars was a protector of Rome and was often associated with the wolf and woodpecker.
It is believed that he was the father of Romulus and Remus, the mythical twins who founded Rome. Additionally, the Roman god of war was second in importance to Jupiter, who was the god of sky and thunder. The month of March was also named after the Roman god.
Failed Missions to Mars
It is estimated that about only one-third of the missions to Mars have been successful. The number is hard to determine. Many missions did not even survive past the launch point, so if they could exit Earth’s atmosphere, that was a big deal. Then, many faced issues with landing on Mars’s surface, faulty engineering, or general damage.
There have been instances where rovers that were thought to have failed their missions were successful, like Beagle 2 probe. It had failed to make contact with the scientists on Earth, but they found out years later that it did reach the planet’s surface. The country with the best record of successful missions to Mars is the United States.
The Vikings on Mars
The Viking Project was the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft on Mars’s surface and was able to return images. These images were ground-breaking because they gave scientists more information than ever before. Viking 1 and 2 launched into space in 1975. Before they were sent into space, nobody knew what the surface of Mars looked like.
In addition to taking photos, the orbiters also conducted science experiments on the Martian surface. They were looking for possible signs of life. While they did not find other lifeforms, they did discover chemical activity in the soil. While their mission was only meant to last 90 days, both orbiters worked for four years.
Why It’s Called the Red Planet
Mars also goes by another nickname, the Red Planet. Obviously, this is because of its red exterior, which is visible in the night sky depending on the time of year and location. The reason that it appears red is because of the soil. Inside the ground, there are iron oxide particles.
Iron oxide is the same compound that gives rust its red tint. So, if an entire planet is covered in the same compound as rust, it is bound to be similar in color! Since heavy dust storms are constantly occurring, the particles are always blowing around the planet’s atmosphere.
Ancient Civilizations Study Mars
Since Mars burns bright and red in the sky, it is not just modern-day scientists who were intrigued by the planet. Ancient civilizations also had a burning fascination with the planet. The Romans named it after their god of war. The Greeks called it Ares, who was their god of war. The Greeks believed that it was a star.
The Babylonians were advanced in their space studies. They were even able to predict eclipses. They named Mars after their king of conflicts, Nergal. The Egyptians noticed that some “stars” stayed in place and called Mars Har Decher. That name ends up translating to the Red One.
There Could Be Life on Mars
Mars is the only planet that scientists believe could have had some life forms on it. It is crazy to think about organisms living in a different world! That means that life would have existed on Mars a long time ago. But exactly how much do scientists know about this phenomenon?
The last time it would have been habitable for life was an estimated 3 or 4 billion years ago. There is a possibility that life is being sustained beneath the planet’s surface because there is access to water, protection from radiation, and extreme climate.
A Rocky Surface
The topography of Mars is rocky and covered in craters, dried-out lake beds, canyons, and volcanos. Since it has a hard, rocky surface, it is considered a terrestrial planet. The planet even has polar ice caps on its north and south poles! Except they are covered in a layer of frozen carbon dioxide, also known as dry ice.
The planet has the largest canyon in the solar system, the Valles Marineris. It is four miles deep and thousands of miles long. The fact that there are craters suggests that the planet once had lots of water to create them. Scientists found evidence of a lake kept under one of the polar ice caps.
There's a Dust Storm Coming
Dust storms are a common occurrence. While Earth experiences similar storms, they are nothing like what happens on Mars. They can get so big that they will cover the entire planet. They are also very powerful. The storms can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to months.
The dust storms constantly change the surface of Mars as they kick up particles and get swirled around. They usually occur during the summer months in the southern hemisphere. If a storm is particularly massive, people on Earth can see it through telescopes!
Harmful Radiation is Everywhere
No amount of SPF would help with protection on Mars. There is no global magnetic field on the Red Planet, which means that the ultraviolet radiation waves can reach and penetrate the entire planet. The ultraviolet radiation originates from the Sun and then travels through space.
On Earth, the atmosphere protects from most of the Sun’s radiation. This makes it extremely difficult to sustain any life form on Mars without that protection. The Mars Odyssey probe detected that radiation levels are 2.5 times higher on Mars than what astronauts experience at the International Space Station.
Temperatures Are Below Freezing
Bundle up because the average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit. To put it into perspective, 32 degrees Fahrenheit is freezing. The low temperatures can be attributed to the planet’s distance from the Sun and its atmosphere. Since the atmosphere is so thin, it cannot retain any heat energy.
Without this “thermal blanket,” there is no way for the planet to warm up. The hottest summer day recorded on Mars is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. For reference, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Inyo County, California.
The Seasons Are A-Changing
Similar to Earth, Mars experiences seasons. There are seasons because Mars has a tilt in its axis, so it receives differing amounts of sunlight as it orbits through its yearly cycle around the Sun. The tilt of Mars is 25.19 degrees, whereas Earth’s axis is tilted at 23.5 degrees.
If humans had to move to Mars, they would still get to experience summer, fall, winter, and spring. Except they would have to prepare for a really rough winter because the seasons on Mars are twice as long as what is experienced on Earth. The one benefit is summer break would also be longer.
Extreme Weather Conditions
Mars holds the title to some of the craziest weather conditions in the entire solar system. Beyond the dust storms, there are windstorms and small tornadoes. Additionally, there have been reports of snow on the planet. Although, scientists believe that the snowflakes on Mars are more of a fog than actual falling snow.
During windstorms, they can reach speeds of up to 60 mph. The frequency of storms increases when the planet is closer to the Sun. Scientists continue to study the weather patterns on the planet using satellites and rovers. It is also an extremely cloudy planet.
The Man on the Moons
There is no man on the moon. But there are two moons that orbit Mars. They are named after the horses that pulled Ares’s chariot, Deimos and Phobos. Both resemble potatoes in the way that they are shaped. They were first discovered by the American astronomer Asaph Hall. He made this observation back in 1877.
There is speculation that they may be captured asteroids that were sucked into orbit around Mars. Also, Phobos is orbiting extremely close to Mars’s atmosphere, which means one day, the moon will be smashed to bits. Don’t worry. That won’t happen for another 50 million years.
A Trip Around Mars
The Mariner 9 was the first artificial satellite to orbit Mars. Before this, the only photos of the planet were taken as satellites passed by the Red Planet. The Mariner 9 was the first time there was an attempt to actually orbit. It stayed in orbit for 349 days.
Mariner 9 reached Mars on November 13, 1971. It was able to photo-map the planet’s entire surface, taking 7,329 photos. Some of these also included pictures of the planet’s moons. Its counterpart, the Mariner 8, failed to launch, but Mariner 9 was more than successful with its mission.
Twenty Years Until the Next Mission
It took twenty years for another mission to Mars to be successful. The Mars Global Surveyor launched on November 7, 1996. During its operations, the Global Surveyor took thousands of photographs. Scientists were able to observe the planet’s weather patterns, surface, atmosphere, and interior.
By the time the mission ended on November 14, 2006, the Surveyor helped significantly. It discovered craters, boulder tracks, gully formations, and polar ice caps. It showed scientists how dynamic of a planet Mars is. While operational, the Surveyor mapped and observed the planet from a low altitude.
It May Be Livable, Just Not Yet
While many think Mars is the only other potential planet to be livable if humankind one day moves off of Earth, it is still far from being habitable. If someone were to step on Mars now without a spacesuit, they would last about two minutes before their organs completely burst.
Humans may be seeing Mars soon, despite all of this. NASA wants to send astronauts to the planet by the late 2030s or early 2040s. So, these future spacemen and women better have amazing spacesuits because we want to ensure that nothing goes awry.
The Fourth Planet Away From the Sun
Mars is the fourth planet away from the Sun. Before Mars, there is Mercury, Venus, and Earth. Mars’s relationship to the Sun affects what happens on the planet, just as it does on Earth. The axis tilt impacts the seasons due to how much sun the planet receives. The distance relates to how long the year is.
There are about 141 million miles between the Sun and Mars. The Red Planet is one of Earth’s neighbors. Some people even refer to it as its twin. Except it won’t be that easy to get to our neighbor if we need sugar. There are about 140 million miles between Earth and Mars.
A Volcano Bigger Than Everest
The largest volcano in the solar system is located on Mars. It is called Olympus Mons. In Latin, this translates to Mount Olympus. It is rightfully named so. Olympus Mons is a shield volcano. This means that it has grown bigger and bigger due to lava flows.
The volcano is 16 miles above the surface. Olympus Mons is twice as tall as Mount Everest. Imagine trying to climb that! Scientists believe that the lower gravity levels, the type of tectonic plate movement, and the long lifetime of eruptions contributed to the volcano’s massive size.
Less Mass, Less Gravity
Mars has less mass than Earth, meaning there is about 1/3 of the gravity on Mars than there is on Earth. That means if someone jumped on Mars, they would jump three times as high as they would here. That is a lot of slam dunks! It also means that an object which weighed 100 pounds on Earth would weigh about 38 pounds on Mars.
If humans were to live on Mars, not only would they be able to jump higher, but other things would change, too. There would be less use and stress on their muscles and skeletal structures. Eventually, this would result in the human body evolving to rely on these parts less and less.
The Physical Structure of Mars
The core of Mars is thought to be similar to Earth’s core. However, scientists still do not know its exact structure. They suspect there is a solid core, liquid outer core, mantle, and then the crust, but there is no way to be entirely sure yet.
However, they do know that the crust is made of iron, magnesium, aluminum, calcium, and potassium. It is between 6 and 30 miles thick. The core of Mars is very dense, with a radius between 930 and 1,300 miles. The core is made up of iron, nickel, and sulfur.
A Massive Crater
The biggest crater on Mars is the Borealis Basin. It is located in the northern hemisphere. The Borealis Basin is nearly 6,000 miles wide. For reference, the Atlantic Ocean is 3,000 miles wide! The crater covers about 40% of the planet's surface. Another name it goes by is the North Polar Basin.
This is where the Viking 1 landed and began exploring. Scientists believe that the crater was carved out about 4.5 billion years ago. They also think there was a 400-million-year lull where no significant impacts happened, followed by a period of activity, which created four giant basins and many smaller craters.
A Quick Visit by the Mariner
In 1965, the Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to visit Mars and take photos of another planet from space. This occurred during the Space Race when the United States and the Soviet Union tried to beat each other in the race into space. Each country sent robotic probes to the Red Planet in the 1960s.
The Mariner 4 was regarded as one of the great successes of the early American space program. It helped NASA learn how to create safe and successful missions. The Mariner 4 was initially planned to orbit for eight months. It ended up operating for three years, way longer than expected.
Foreign Objects on Mars
Over the years, people have speculated that there are alien objects on Mars, using photos from NASA as proof. While the theories are fun, there is usually a good explanation. Like when people thought there were spaghetti noodles on the surface, it was netting from a rover.
Another example is when people thought there was a door, but it was just shadows on a rock formation. One alien investigative group believes a photo has revealed an alien skull, but there is no evidence to back this theory. Most of the objects on Mars are scattered debris from rovers and probes that have been on the planet.
The Perseverance Rover Lands
As part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the 2020 Perseverance Rover finally landed on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021. Its mission is meant to last at least one Mars year, and it will be collecting samples from rocks and soil. The objective is to find signs of habitable conditions from the past.
Perseverance will also be looking for lifeforms. Additionally, it will give scientists more information so they can one day send humans to Earth’s neighbor. Before they can even begin thinking about sending humans, they must have information that will enable them to do so.
A Toxic Atmosphere
The atmosphere on Mars is composed primarily of carbon dioxide. It is a whopping 95%. That is a whole lot of CO2. There is also nitrogen, argon, and other miscellaneous gases that comprise the atmosphere. On Earth, the atmosphere is made up mainly of nitrogen and oxygen.
Additionally, the atmosphere on Mars is way less dense than Earth’s, about 100 times less. Scientists believe there was a much thicker atmosphere at one time, and they think that the solar wind is one of the main reasons Mars has lost much of its atmosphere.
A Small Population
There is a tiny population on Mars. They are definitely not human, but they are also not aliens. They are robots! Currently, four rovers make up the entire community. Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity were all sent to Mars by NASA. While all four remain on the surface, only Curiosity is still active.
Curiosity is the biggest and most capable rover made to date. They were all sent to take samples and pictures of the Martian soil and air and to look for potential life. Opportunity and Spirit were sent to Mars together. They landed on opposite ends of the planet and then set off to explore Mars in its entirety.
There Are Bits of Mars on Earth
Over the years, meteorites have been found on Earth, some of which have originated in Mars. A meteorite is a piece of debris from an object that originates in space, it then survives its passage through the atmosphere to reach the surface of another planet or moon.
Seventy meteorites have been recognized as coming from Mars. Scientists conduct experiments to determine a meteorite's origins. For example, NASA scientists matched gases from a meteorite sample to those collected from the Viking Rovers. When they matched up, they determined the meteorite was from Mars.
To the Last Frontier
Each day the world is getting closer and closer to expanding to other planets. Countries have been sending space crafts to Mars for decades, and it is only a matter of time before those ships have human passengers. NASA wants to send humans to Mars by the 2040s.
SpaceX is working on a Mars program. They are developing the Starship, and founder Elon Musk has stated that he wants to make humanity a "multi-planetary species." In Japan, they are working on the Hexatrack, which will eventually connect Earth and Mars. It is a habitat that would mimic Earth's atmosphere, gravity, and topography.