Red Planet – Mars

You’ve probably heard of ingenuity, the robotic helicopter that recently made news. It is the first helicopter to fly in the atmosphere of another planet, and the planet it flew over is Mars, our solar system’s red neighbor. With its reddish color and seemingly irregular movement across the sky, Mars has always piqued man’s interest. Modern science keeps a close eye on this planet, and the space era has helped to solve many of its riddles.

Ingenuity

What Distinguishes Mars From Other Planets?

Once every so often while gazing up on a clear night, you may be able to spot a small reddish disc shining in the sky. Meet Mars, a planet that has been inspiring our imagination since time immemorial! Bigger than Mercury, but smaller than Venus, Mars is the second-smallest planet in our solar system. Distance wise, it is the fourth planet from the Sun, and our closest neighbor right after Venus. This is a reason why, when Mars comes closest to the Earth, it is one of the brightest natural objects in the night sky, next only to Venus and the Moon. Even with the naked eye, it can be easily distinguished from other astronomical bodies thanks to its unique reddish appearance. This color is the result of the abundance of rusty-red iron oxides on its surface. It is not just the color that has fascinated us over the centuries, but also the idea of life on this “Red Planet”.

Does Life Exists On Mars?

Scientists have long argued whether Mars was once a habitable planet and how it could support life now or in the not-too-distant future. This is because Mars is comparable to Earth in many aspects. It has a thin atmosphere and is a terrestrial planet with seasons and weather patterns. Although it possesses impact craters similar to those found on our Moon, it also has topographical features similar to those found on Earth. Valleys, volcanoes, canyons, deserts, and polar ice caps are examples of natural features.  Scientists have discovered what appear to be aliens on Mars. Floods from the past have been discovered. Also there are evidence of saline water flows on certain Martian mountains.

Planet Mars Facts Infographic

What is the origin of the name Mars?

Centuries ago, the Romans identified seven celestial objects that were brighter than the rest in the sky – The Sun, the Moon and five planets – and gave four of them the names of Roman gods – Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

But one among them was exceptionally red. It might have reminded those ancient astronomers of blood because they called it “Mars,” after their god of war! Greeks too, saw their god of war in the planet, and called it Ares. In fact, in 1877 when an American astronomer Asaph Hall, discovered the two natural satellites of Mars, he decided to name them Deimos and Phobos, thereby carrying forward the analogy!

According to Greek mythology, Deimos and Phobos were the sons of Ares. The literal meanings of their names are “dread” and “fear”! Other ancient cultures had their own names for Mars. To the Chinese it was the “Fire Star” and to the Egyptians, it was “Her Desher,” or “the red one,” showing us yet again how Mars’ distinctive color made a powerful impression on the minds of our ancestors! Mars has also been linked to masculinity and strength. Have you seen the symbol used to represent the male gender? It is a circle with an arrow attached to its upper-right part, the arrowhead pointing outwards. This sign owes its origin to the symbol of Mars.

Mars' moon

What Is Mars Made Up Of?

The story of Mars began many years ago, when the planets we see now were extremely hot. The dense radioactive masses frequently collided with one another. These masses disintegrated. The heavier elements sunk to the core, while the lighter elements floated. Planetary differentiation is the name given to this process.

Inside Mars

As a result, if we cut into Mars, we’ll discover a dense core, mantle, and crust similar to those found on Earth. According to recent studies, the core is molten and has a radius of 1,810 to 1,860 kilometers. It is mostly composed of iron and nickel, with a little proportion of sulphur (about 16–17%). Its core is estimated to have double the concentration of lighter elements than the Earth’s! The next layer, the mantle, is made up of silicate rock and is lighter than the core. The most outer layer, Silicon, oxygen, iron, magnesium, aluminium, calcium, and potassium make up the majority of Mars’ crust.

Inside Mars

How Big Is Mars?

Mars is the second-smallest planet in our solar system, larger than Mercury but smaller than Venus. When measured along the equator, it has a radius of 3,396 kilometers.  Mars is likewise less dense than Earth. As a result, Mars has a mass of only 11% that of the Earth and, it has a lower gravitational pull – only 3.72 metres per second square. It is roughly one-third the size of the Earth. So, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Mars, don’t pass it up. Don’t forget to bring your weighing scales; once there, you’ll discover that you only weigh a few pounds.

Is There Water On Mars?

Mars was not always the dry planet we know today. Evidence suggests that four million years ago, liquid water used to flow across the Martian surface and form S pools and lakes! Jezero crater is one such long-dried out lake found by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Many other stream and lake beds have also been discovered. Scientists say that if Mars had been able to hold liquid water in the past, its atmosphere and climate too, would have been vastly different back then. Maybe, once upon a time, it was like Venus, or the Earth! After all, all the three planets are made up of similar materials. So in their early stages, their surface conditions may have been similar too! But over the years, these planets became quite different – the Earth and Venus still have most of their thick protective atmosphere, whereas Mars was able to retain only a thin layer.

What distinguishes Martian soil from that of Earth?

Martian soil is a farmer’s night mare! The reason? It has no organic content. It is not aerated either. Instead, all it contains is mineral matter, largely in the form of sand, the product of weathering of volcanic rocks. Mars is also extremely dry. Scientists say the trace amount of water in the soil, about 2 per cent, may have been absorbed from the atmosphere.

 The Martian surface layer is made up of fine dust. Rich in iron oxides, or rust, this dusty layer gives the planet its unique red color! Though similar iron rich soils can also be found on the Earth, it is limited to certain places. Not so, on Mars. Dust storms sweep across it occasion ally, transporting fine dust all over the planet. So the Martian surface layer is largely homogenous, like a huge desert. Photographs of steep slopes, such as those of hills, craters and troughs, often reveal thin dark lines on the Martian surface. Sometimes, these “streaks” start small and gradually grow until they are hundreds of meters in length! They may grow lighter in colour with time, and even follow the edges of rocks and boulders blocking their path to get to the other side. What are these strange lines? Are they flow paths of water, or growth of organisms? No one knows for sure. Scientists think they may just be hidden darker layers of soil that are revealed by dust avalanches or spinning columns of dust, called dust devils.

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