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Mars


Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System after Mercury. In English, Mars carries a name of the Roman god of war, and is often referred to as the "Red Planet" because the reddish iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance that is distinctive among the astronomical bodies visible to the naked eye. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth.

The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano and second-highest known mountain in the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the Solar System. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small and irregularly shaped. These may be captured asteroids, similar to 5261 Eureka, a Mars trojan.There are ongoing investigations assessing the past habitability potential of Mars, as well as the possibility of extant life. Future astrobiology missions are planned, including the Mars 2020 and ExoMars rovers.Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars due to low atmospheric pressure, which is less than 1% of the Earth's, except at the lowest elevations for short periods. The two polar ice caps appear to be made largely of water. The volume of water ice in the south polar ice cap, if melted, would be sufficient to cover the entire planetary surface to a depth of 11 meters (36 ft). In November 2016, NASA reported finding a large amount of underground ice in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars. The volume of water detected has been estimated to be equivalent to the volume of water in Lake Superior.Mars can easily be seen from Earth with the naked eye, as can its reddish coloring. Its apparent magnitude reaches −2.91, which is surpassed only by Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and the Sun. Optical ground-based telescopes are typically limited to resolving features about 300 kilometers (190 mi) across when Earth and Mars are closest because of Earth's atmosphere.

Contents

  1. Physical characteristics
  2. Orbit and rotation

Physical characteristics


Mars is approximately half the diameter of Earth with a surface area only slightly less than the total area of Earth's dry land. Mars is less dense than Earth, having about 15% of Earth's volume and 11% of Earth's mass, resulting in about 38% of Earth's surface gravity. The red-orange appearance of the Martian surface is caused by iron(III) oxide, or rust. It can look like butterscotch; other common surface colors include golden, brown, tan, and greenish, depending on the minerals present.

Comparison: Earth and Mars Animation (00:40) showing major features of Mars Video (01:28) showing how three NASA orbiters mapped the gravity field of Mars

Internal structure

Like Earth, Mars has differentiated into a dense metallic core overlaid by less dense materials. Current models of its interior imply a core with a radius of about 1,794 ± 65 kilometers (1,115 ± 40 mi), consisting primarily of iron and nickel with about 16–17% sulfur. This iron(II) sulfide core is thought to be twice as rich in lighter elements as Earth's. The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle that formed many of the tectonic and volcanic features on the planet, but it appears to be dormant. Besides silicon and oxygen, the most abundant elements in the Martian crust are iron, magnesium, aluminum, calcium, and potassium. The average thickness of the planet's crust is about 50 km (31 mi), with a maximum thickness of 125 km (78 mi). Earth's crust averages 40 km (25 mi).

Surface geology

Mars is a terrestrial planet that consists of minerals containing silicon and oxygen, metals, and other elements that typically make up rock. The surface of Mars is primarily composed of tholeiitic basalt, although parts are more silica-rich than typical basalt and may be similar to andesitic rocks on Earth or silica glass. Regions of low albedo suggest concentrations of plagioclase feldspar, with northern low albedo regions displaying higher than normal concentrations of sheet silicates and high-silicon glass. Parts of the southern highlands include detectable amounts of high-calcium pyroxenes. Localized concentrations of hematite and olivine have been found. Much of the surface is deeply covered by finely grained iron(III) oxide dust.

Although Mars has no evidence of a structured global magnetic field,observations show that parts of the planet's crust have been magnetized, suggesting that alternating polarity reversals of its dipole field have occurred in the past. This paleomagnetism of magnetically susceptible minerals is similar to the alternating bands found on Earth's ocean floors. One theory, published in 1999 and re-examined in October 2005 (with the help of the Mars Global Surveyor), is that these bands suggest plate tectonic activity on Mars four billion years ago, before the planetary dynamo ceased to function and the planet's magnetic field faded. It is thought that, during the Solar System's formation, Mars was created as the result of a stochastic process of run-away accretion of material from the protoplanetary disk that orbited the Sun. Mars has many distinctive chemical features caused by its position in the Solar System. Elements with comparatively low boiling points, such as chlorine, phosphorus, and sulphur, are much more common on Mars than Earth; these elements were probably pushed outward by the young Sun's energetic solar wind. After the formation of the planets, all were subjected to the so-called "Late Heavy Bombardment". About 60% of the surface of Mars shows a record of impacts from that era, whereas much of the remaining surface is probably underlain by immense impact basins caused by those events. There is evidence of an enormous impact basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars, spanning 10,600 by 8,500 km (6,600 by 5,300 mi), or roughly four times the size of the Moon's South Pole – Aitken basin, the largest impact basin yet discovered. This theory suggests that Mars was struck by a Pluto-sized body about four billion years ago. The event, thought to be the cause of the Martian hemispheric dichotomy, created the smooth Borealis basin that covers 40% of the planet.

The geological history of Mars can be split into many periods, but the following are the three primary periods:

Artist's impression of how Mars may have looked four billion years ago
  1. Noachian period (named after Noachis Terra): Formation of the oldest extant surfaces of Mars, 4.5 to 3.5 billion years ago. Noachian age surfaces are scarred by many large impact craters. The Tharsis bulge, a volcanic upland, is thought to have formed during this period, with extensive flooding by liquid water late in the period.

  2. Hesperian period (named after Hesperia Planum): 3.5 to between 3.3 and 2.9 billion years ago. The Hesperian period is marked by the formation of extensive lava plains.

  3. Amazonian period (named after Amazonis Planitia): between 3.3 and 2.9 billion years ago to the present. Amazonian regions have few meteorite impact craters, but are otherwise quite varied. Olympus Mons formed during this period, with lava flows elsewhere on Mars.

Soil

Exposure of silica-rich dust uncovered by the Spirit rover

The Phoenix lander returned data showing Martian soil to be slightly alkaline and containing elements such as magnesium, sodium, potassium and chlorine. These nutrients are found in soils on Earth, and they are necessary for growth of plants. Experiments performed by the lander showed that the Martian soil has a basic pH of 7.7, and contains 0.6% of the salt perchlorate.


Streaks are common across Mars and new ones appear frequently on steep slopes of craters, troughs, and valleys. The streaks are dark at first and get lighter with age. The streaks can start in a tiny area, then spread out for hundreds of metres. They have been seen to follow the edges of boulders and other obstacles in their path. The commonly accepted theories include that they are dark underlying layers of soil revealed after avalanches of bright dust or dust devils. Several other explanations have been put forward, including those that involve water or even the growth of organisms.

Hydrology

Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars due to low atmospheric pressure, which is less than 1% that of Earth's, except at the lowest elevations for short periods. The two polar ice caps appear to be made largely of water. The volume of water ice in the south polar ice cap, if melted, would be sufficient to cover the entire planetary surface to a depth of 11 meters (36 ft). A permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°. Large quantities of water ice are thought to be trapped within the thick cryosphere of Mars. Radar data from Mars Express and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show large quantities of water ice at both poles (July 2005) and at middle latitudes (November 2008). The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.

Photomicrograph by Opportunity showing a gray hematite concretion, nicknamed "blueberries", indicative of the past existence of liquid water

Landforms visible on Mars strongly suggest that liquid water has existed on the planet's surface. Huge linear swathes of scoured ground, known as outflow channels, cut across the surface in about 25 places. These are thought to be a record of erosion caused by the catastrophic release of water from subsurface aquifers, though some of these structures have been hypothesized to result from the action of glaciers or lava. One of the larger examples, Ma'adim Vallis is 700 km (430 mi) long, much greater than the Grand Canyon, with a width of 20 km (12 mi) and a depth of 2 km (1.2 mi) in places. It is thought to have been carved by flowing water early in Mars's history. The youngest of these channels are thought to have formed as recently as only a few million years ago.Elsewhere, particularly on the oldest areas of the Martian surface, finer-scale, dendritic networks of valleys are spread across significant proportions of the landscape. Features of these valleys and their distribution strongly imply that they were carved by runoff resulting from precipitation in early Mars history. Subsurface water flow and groundwater sapping may play important subsidiary roles in some networks, but precipitation was probably the root cause of the incision in almost all cases.

Along crater and canyon walls, there are thousands of features that appear similar to terrestrial gullies. The gullies tend to be in the highlands of the southern hemisphere and to face the Equator; all are poleward of 30° latitude. A number of authors have suggested that their formation process involves liquid water, probably from melting ice, although others have argued for formation mechanisms involving carbon dioxide frost or the movement of dry dust. No partially degraded gullies have formed by weathering and no superimposed impact craters have been observed, indicating that these are young features, possibly still active. Other geological features, such as deltas and alluvial fans preserved in craters, are further evidence for warmer, wetter conditions at an interval or intervals in earlier Mars history. Such conditions necessarily require the widespread presence of crater lakes across a large proportion of the surface, for which there is independent mineralogical, sedimentological and geomorphological evidence.

Composition of "Yellowknife Bay" rocks. Rock veins are higher in calcium and sulfur than "portage" soil (Curiosity, APXS, 2013).

Further evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars comes from the detection of specific minerals such as hematite and goethite, both of which sometimes form in the presence of water. In 2004, Opportunity detected the mineral jarosite. This forms only in the presence of acidic water, which demonstrates that water once existed on Mars. More recent evidence for liquid water comes from the finding of the mineral gypsum on the surface by NASA's Mars rover Opportunity in December 2011. It is believed that the amount of water in the upper mantle of Mars, represented by hydroxyl ions contained within the minerals of Mars's geology, is equal to or greater than that of Earth at 50–300 parts per million of water, which is enough to cover the entire planet to a depth of 200–1,000 m (660–3,280 ft).

In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles and at mid-latitudes. The Mars rover Spirit sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules in March 2007. The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.

On March 18, 2013, NASA reported evidence from instruments on the Curiosity rover of mineral hydration, likely hydrated calcium sulfate, in several rock samples including the broken fragments of "Tintina" rock and "Sutton Inlier" rock as well as in veins and nodules in other rocks like "Knorr" rock and "Wernicke" rock. Analysis using the rover's DAN instrument provided evidence of subsurface water, amounting to as much as 4% water content, down to a depth of 60 cm (24 in), during the rover's traverse from the Bradbury Landing site to the Yellowknife Bay area in the Glenelg terrain. In September 2015, NASA announced that they had found conclusive evidence of hydrated brine flows on recurring slope lineae, based on spectrometer readings of the darkened areas of slopes. These observations provided confirmation of earlier hypotheses based on timing of formation and their rate of growth, that these dark streaks resulted from water flowing in the very shallow subsurface. The streaks contain hydrated salts, perchlorates, which have water molecules in their crystal structure. The streaks flow downhill in Martian summer, when the temperature is above −23 degrees Celsius, and freeze at lower temperatures. On September 28, 2015, NASA announced the presence of briny flowing salt water on the Martian surface.

Researchers believe that much of the low northern plains of the planet were covered with an ocean hundreds of meters deep, though this remains controversial. In March 2015, scientists stated that such an ocean might have been the size of Earth's Arctic Ocean. This finding was derived from the ratio of water to deuterium in the modern Martian atmosphere compared to that ratio on Earth. The amount of Martian deuterium is eight times the amount that exists on Earth, suggesting that ancient Mars had significantly higher levels of water. Results from the Curiosity rover had previously found a high ratio of deuterium in Gale Crater, though not significantly high enough to suggest the former presence of an ocean. Other scientists caution that these results have not been confirmed, and point out that Martian climate models have not yet shown that the planet was warm enough in the past to support bodies of liquid water.

Atmosphere

The tenuous atmosphere of Mars visible on the horizon

Mars lost its magnetosphere 4 billion years ago, possibly because of numerous asteroid strikes, so the solar wind interacts directly with the Martian ionosphere, lowering the atmospheric density by stripping away atoms from the outer layer. Both Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express have detected ionised atmospheric particles trailing off into space behind Mars, and this atmospheric loss is being studied by the MAVEN orbiter. Compared to Earth, the atmosphere of Mars is quite rarefied. Atmospheric pressure on the surface today ranges from a low of 30 Pa (0.030 kPa) on Olympus Mons to over 1,155 Pa (1.155 kPa) in Hellas Planitia, with a mean pressure at the surface level of 600 Pa (0.60 kPa). The highest atmospheric density on Mars is equal to that found 35 km (22 mi) above Earth's surface. The resulting mean surface pressure is only 0.6% of that of Earth (101.3 kPa). The scale height of the atmosphere is about 10.8 km (6.7 mi), which is higher than Earth's, 6 km (3.7 mi), because the surface gravity of Mars is only about 38% of Earth's, an effect offset by both the lower temperature and 50% higher average molecular weight of the atmosphere of Mars.

The atmosphere of Mars consists of about 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen along with traces of oxygen and water. The atmosphere is quite dusty, containing particulates about 1.5 µm in diameter which give the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. It may take on a pink hue due to iron oxide particles suspended in it.

Potential sources and sinks of methane (CH4) on Mars

Methane has been detected in the Martian atmosphere with a concentration of about 30 ppb; it occurs in extended plumes, and the profiles imply that the methane was released from discrete regions. In northern midsummer, the principal plume contained 19,000 metric tons of methane, with an estimated source strength of 0.6 kilograms per second. The profiles suggest that there may be two local source regions, the first centered near 30°N 260°W and the second near 0°N 310°W. It is estimated that Mars must produce 270 tonnes per year of methane.

Methane can exist in the Martian atmosphere for only a limited period before it is destroyed—estimates of its lifetime range from 0.6–4 years. Its presence despite this short lifetime indicates that an active source of the gas must be present. Volcanic activity, cometary impacts, and the presence of methanogenic microbial life forms are among possible sources. Methane could be produced by a non-biological process called serpentinization involving water, carbon dioxide, and the mineral olivine, which is known to be common on Mars.

Escaping atmosphere on Mars (carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen) by MAVEN in UV

The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012, is able to make measurements that distinguish between different isotopologues of methane, but even if the mission is to determine that microscopic Martian life is the source of the methane, the life forms likely reside far below the surface, outside of the rover's reach. The first measurements with the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) indicated that there is less than 5 ppb of methane at the landing site at the point of the measurement. On September 19, 2013, NASA scientists, from further measurements by Curiosity, reported no detection of atmospheric methane with a measured value of 0.18±0.67 ppbv corresponding to an upper limit of only 1.3 ppbv (95% confidence limit) and, as a result, conclude that the probability of current methanogenic microbial activity on Mars is reduced.

The Mars Orbiter Mission by India is searching for methane in the atmosphere, while the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, launched in 2016, would further study the methane as well as its decomposition products, such as formaldehyde and methanol.

On December 16, 2014, NASA reported the Curiosity rover detected a "tenfold spike", likely localized, in the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Sample measurements taken "a dozen times over 20 months" showed increases in late 2013 and early 2014, averaging "7 parts of methane per billion in the atmosphere." Before and after that, readings averaged around one-tenth that level.

Ammonia was tentatively detected on Mars by the Mars Express satellite, but with its relatively short lifetime, it is not clear what produced it. Ammonia is not stable in the Martian atmosphere and breaks down after a few hours. One possible source is volcanic activity.

In September 2017, NASA reported radiation levels on the surface of the planet Mars were temporarily doubled, and were associated with an aurora 25-times brighter than any observed earlier, due to a massive, and unexpected, solar storm in the middle of the month.

Orbit and rotation


Mars is about 230 million kilometres (143,000,000 mi) from the Sun; its orbital period is 687 (Earth) days, depicted in red. Earth's orbit is in blue.

Mars's average distance from the Sun is roughly 230 million kilometres (143,000,000 mi), and its orbital period is 687 (Earth) days. The solar day (or sol) on Mars is only slightly longer than an Earth day: 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds. A Martian year is equal to 1.8809 Earth years, or 1 year, 320 days, and 18.2 hours.

The axial tilt of Mars is 25.19 degrees relative to its orbital plane, which is similar to the axial tilt of Earth. As a result, Mars has seasons like Earth, though on Mars, they are nearly twice as long because its orbital period is that much longer. In the present day epoch, the orientation of the north pole of Mars is close to the star Deneb. Mars passed an aphelion in March 2010 and its perihelion in March 2011. The next aphelion came in February 2012 and the next perihelion came in January 2013

Mars has a relatively pronounced orbital eccentricity of about 0.09; of the seven other planets in the Solar System, only Mercury has a larger orbital eccentricity. It is known that in the past, Mars has had a much more circular orbit. At one point, 1.35 million Earth years ago, Mars had an eccentricity of roughly 0.002, much less than that of Earth today. Mars's cycle of eccentricity is 96,000 Earth years compared to Earth's cycle of 100,000 years. Mars has a much longer cycle of eccentricity, with a period of 2.2 million Earth years, and this overshadows the 96,000-year cycle in the eccentricity graphs. For the last 35,000 years, the orbit of Mars has been getting slightly more eccentric because of the gravitational effects of the other planets. The closest distance between Earth and Mars will continue to mildly decrease for the next 25,000 years.

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