The planet Mars has been fascinating sky watchers for centuries, ever since the Red Planet was named for the Roman god of war, a reference to what looked like a blood stained surface. In fact, the red color is caused by oxidation of the iron-rich minerals on the planet's surface. Mars is covered by rust!
Our neighbor planet is both familiar and strangely different than Earth. Half again as far from the Sun as we are, Mars takes about 687 Earth days to travel around our star. It is about half the diameter of our planet but has about as much dry land area as Earth does (since most of our surface is under water), and its variety of scenery is at least as diverse as ours. Mars is a small, rocky planet that developed relatively close to the Sun. Despite the hardships it would pose to humans such as extremely cold temperatures and no atmosphere, Mars would be a exciting place to visit.
Mars has shown itself to be the most Earthlike of the planets, with polar ice caps that grow and recede with the change of seasons, and markings that looked to be similar to man-made canals on Earth, fueling the idea that Mars was perhaps inhabited by aliens.
Today we know there are no canals or faces on Mars, but there are natural channels apparently carved by past water flow.
A travel brochure to Mars would highlight:
- Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system, measuring 300 miles across at its base.
- Craters such as Hellas Basin which is more than a thousand miles across and four miles deep.
- A giant chasm known as Valles Marineris which is nearly 3,000 miles long.
- Dry river beds, found all over the planet, which were first discovered by Mariner 9 and studied in more detail by the Viking orbiters.