Facts about Mars

Thanks to the gathering momentum of planetary science we now know more about our own solar system than ever before.Partly due to the recent advances within the world of astrophotography that have enabled amateurs such as myself to gain images of our nearest neighbours in unprecedented detail, extending our eyes further into the depths of space.

On Earth we are the third rock from the sun but gazing outwards into the solar system there is a whole treasure trove of planetary bodies as well as moons to explore. One such planet is particularly alluring to scientists at present, as in time, it might be a place we’ll call home. Those who have read Jeremy HSu’s article on how cyanobacteria could change the red planet into a lush green one given enough time will know that the topic of transforming Mars is no longer just a Star Trek plotline but rather something practical and real  that will help shape our future as a species. 

NASA have recently announced they want to put a man on Mars by 2050, but what will those first pioneers setting foot on another world expect to find when they touch down in four decades time?…

First off, insulated space suits will be an absolute necessity as even along the warmer equatorial regions of Terra Meridani temperatures plunge to an astonishing -125 Fahrenheit. In the martian summertime temperatures still barely make it over -4 Fahrenheit. The planet is tilted on it’s axis by 25.2 degrees which is 1.7 degrees more than Earth, meaning there is a wider range of temperature extremes. This puts a lot of importance on when and where the first interplanetary astronauts would land.

A constant air supply would be necessary to, Mars has an atmosphere less than 1% as thick as the Earths. The reason is two fold, firstly Mars is just under 6,800km in diameter (6,792km) which is slightly over half of Earths 12,756km diameter. Therefore Mars exerts just under 40% (38%) of Earths gravitational pull on it’s atmosphere allowing much more of it to escape into the esther. Secondly Mars lost it’s magnetosphere many hundreds of millions of years ago (a subject even NASA scientists can’t agree on)which left the atmosphere to be stripped by ionization from the sun. It helps to think of it as very energetic “particles” of light pinging off of Mars’ atmosphere sending them hurtling out into space. The tenuous atmosphere left behind is comprised of just over 95% carbon dioxide

The most physically dominating features that would have to be on any exploring astronauts itinerary would be the towering (once active, now dead)structure Olympus Mons. A mighty volcano that formed between 2.6 and 3.6 billion years ago during Mars’ Hesperian Period, an ancient era where huge oceans made from martian mud dominated the northern hemisphere and the planet was still very much hydrologically active. At 27km Olympus Mons is not only the biggest volcano on Mars but in the known solar system. The feet of the volcano sprawl out over 624km while it’s head is so high that 17km of it’s bulk actually juts out of Mars’ flimsy atmosphere! 

At the other extreme the huge gaping maw of Valles Marineris would be found by astronauts landing at a site known as the Tharsis bulge. A magnificent canyon system that at over 4,000km long and 7km at it’s deepest puts even the beautiful grand canyon to shame. There are currently two schools of thought on how this gargantuan geological gorge was formed. Some scientists believe it formed from a raging river (much like the grand canyon) at a time where Mars still had enough of it’s atmosphere that running water could exist on it’s surface. A more recent theory posits that the canyon was formed when subsurface magma eroded quicker than the rocks above it causing the martian surface to collapse leaving the huge tear down Mars flank.

Just before the pioneers board the ship for their 6 month return journey they may well have time to admire the delicate pink hue of the atmosphere caused by the suspension of iron oxide (known to you and me as rust) as a tiny and faint sun rises on a martian day that’s only 24 minutes longer than one at home.