An Overview of the Planet Mars

The Romans, many centuries ago, gave the planet its name, given in honor of their god of war, Mars. Mars is also called the Red Planet, due to its dark red color. But what makes Mars look red? Is it the blood of war? No, it is the dust iron oxide that gives Mars its reddish glow.

It is a dry place that does not harbor life. But there has always been speculation that at some time, long before humans could comprehend the breadth and depth of space, there may have been life.

Now, though, there is none. Much of Mars’ atmosphere, 95% of it, is made up of carbon dioxide, and life, as we humans know it, could not tolerate such a thin atmosphere.

Its orbit is elliptical. This, along with the thin atmosphere, creates great fluctuations in temperature. In Mars’ winter, temperatures can drop to minus 207 degrees Farenheit. The summer temperatures, though, are a comfortable 80 degrees.(1) But no one summers on Mars.

In July of 1965, the people of Earth got their first real look at the Red Planet. The spacecraft Mariner IV transmitted images back to Earth as it flew over, coming within 6,118 miles of Mars.(2) The images revealed ancient craters and channels, though the channels appeared to have been wrought by nature, not sentient beings.

Where is Mars’ place in the Solar system? Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, and the seventh largest -to date. The equatorial diameter of Mars is 4222 miles, about half that of Earth. It’s radius is 2111 miles.(3) It has two moons, smaller and not as spherical as Earth’s own moon. They are called Phobos and Deimos.

Has Mars always been a dry planet? Perhaps not. An image of Mars taken by the Hubble Telescope shows evidence of water, and there are polar ice caps. What do the scientists think? They think that as long ago as 3.7 billion years, there was water on Mars surface. But as the planet cooled, the water froze, ultimately dissipating.(4) But that is speculation, not a proven fact.

What is a fact, though, is that the surface of Mars has been and continues to be influenced by wind. Images from the spacecraft Viking orbiter show windstreaks and dunes, the dunes being very similar to those found on Earth. Dust storms are frequent on Mars, and can be localized or can cover the entire planet, though that is rare. Dust storms on Mars are powered by sunlight. The heat from the sun warms the thin atmosphere, causing it to move and lift the red dust from the surface.

Wild and violent dust storms. Winds that carve out dunes. An atmosphere so thin, the winters are minus 207 degrees. Waterless craters and canals. Two elongated moons. Red dust. Such is the stuff that makes up the planet Mars. Though no life, no evidence of life, has been found we humans still look to that red glowing planet and wonder if perhaps some time long ago there was life, or perhaps it is yet to come.