Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Mars (Greek: Ares) is the god of War. The planet probably got this name due to its red color; Mars is sometimes referred to as the Red Planet. (An interesting side note: the Roman god Mars was a god of agriculture before becoming associated with the Greek Ares; those in favor of colonizing and terraforming Mars may prefer this symbolism.) The name of the month March derives from Mars.

Mars has been known since prehistoric times. Of course, it has been extensively studied with ground-based observatories. But even very large telescopes find Mars a difficult target, it's just too small. It is still a favorite of science fiction writers as the most favorable place in the Solar System (other than Earth!) for human habitation. But the famous "canals" "seen" by Lowell and others were, unfortunately, just as imaginary as Barsoomian princesses.

The first spacecraft to visit Mars was Mariner 4 in 1965. Several others followed including Mars 2, the first spacecraft to land on Mars and the two Viking landers in 1976. Ending a long 20 year hiatus, Mars Pathfinder landed successfully on Mars on 1997 July 4. In 2004 the Mars Expedition Rovers "Spirit" and "Opportunity" landed on Mars sending back geologic data and many pictures; they are still operating after more than three years on Mars. In 2008, Phoenix landed in the northern plains to search for water. Three Mars orbiters (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Express) are also currently in operation.

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 day side during summer.

Though Mars is much smaller than Earth, its surface area is about the same as the land surface area of Earth.
Olympus Mons

Mars has some of 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 (top of page);

Hellas Planitia: an impact crater in the southern hemisphere over 6 km deep and 2000 km in diameter.
Much of the Martian surface is very old and cratered, but there are also much younger rift valleys, ridges, hills and plains. (None of this is visible in any detail with a telescope, even the Hubble Space Telescope; all this information comes from the spacecraft that we've sent to Mars.)

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