This week out 5 Facts series continues with our little brother planet – Mars!

  1. Seeing Red 

Mars is famously known as the red planet as its dusty ground is tinged brownish red by iron-oxide (rust). This makes Mars look red to the human eye when we see it in the night sky. However, according to NASA, if you were able to stand on the surface of Mars (which one day soon we may well be), much of the surface would appear butterscotch, or golden brown. Apparently, you would be searching for a long time before you came across a pure red patch. But, how come the surface appears red in photographs? Well, the cameras use filters that don’t always match what the human eye might see.  

Curiosity’s Dusty Selfie at Duluth showing the apparent reddish surface. Image Credit: NASA
  1. And the winner is… 

If there was an Oscars for planets, Mars would be going home with lots of awards. The first award would be in the ‘The Largest Volcano’ category. Olympus Mons is three times higher than Mount Everest at 22km high. Mauna Loain, the Highest Volcano on Earth has a summit only 17km above the ocean floor. However, Olympus Mons’ slopes are so wide and gentle that if it were a tourist attraction we would wonder what all the fuss was about! 
And the winner of ‘The Largest Canyon’ goes to… that’s right… you’ve guessed it – Mars! The famous Valles Marineris is five times as long and almost four times as deep as the Earth’s Grand Canyon. To put it into perspective, Mars’ mighty canyon would stretch from New York to Los Angeles! It stretches a fifth of the way around Mars, it’s got huge dunes and flood channels known as outflow channels. 

Colour mosaic of Olympus Mons volcano on Mars from the Viking 1 Orbiter. Image Credit: NASA 
Fly Through Over Valles Marineris. Image Credit: NASA
  1. The Terrifying Potato Moons 

Mars has two small moons orbiting around it. One named Phobos after the Greek God of Fear and the other named Deimos after the Greek God of Terror. Potato-shaped Phobos is the inner moon and the larger of the two moons. It is also heavily cratered. Deimos looks more like a football and is less cratered than Phobos. These odd shaped moons were not formed like our moon, it is believed that they may be asteroids that flew close to Mars and captured by the planet’s gravity.  So, there you are, nothing terrifying at all, unless you’re scared of potatoes that is… 

  1. We Come In Peace 

From as early as 1659, we have been intrigued by the possibility of water and life on other Mars. The Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens made observation using his own telescope that led him to speculate about life on Mars because the planet was so similar to Earth. In 1877, an Italian Astronomer, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, reported seeing lines crisscrossing the surface of Mars. He called these features canali which was soon mistranslated into English as canals. This, of course, got people very excited at the possibility of life on Mars capable of constructing these canals! The many spacecrafts sent to Mars since the 1970s have dispelled these speculations. Finding no canals or other signs of an intelligent Martian life.  
However, that is not to say that some sort of life might exist on Mars. The next big mission was to find out if liquid water ever flowed or does still exist on the red planet. The orbiting missions to Mars have shown many features that look like dried-up riverbeds, lakes and other water-related features. Other evidence such as space rocks found on Earth that are believed to have once been pieces of Mars contain water-soaked clay! 
More recently, ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter found what they believe to be a lake that sits under the planet’s polar ice cap in 2018. They used a radar instrument called Marsis. It determined the lake to be about 20km long but couldn’t tell how thick the water is. Definitely a very exciting discovery but scientists say that the water’s temperature and chemistry would be problematic for any potential organisms.  

Image of MARSIS. Image Credit: ESA
  1. ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed. Try, Try Again.’ 

This phrase is certainly true when it comes to the exploration of Mars. It has been the target of more space probes than any other planet in our solar system.  Mars is sometimes known as the ‘Spacecraft Graveyard’ as it took many attempts to get a spacecraft to Mars and even then, the creators of these spacecrafts still had their difficult moments! 
The Viking Landers were the first spacecrafts to successfully land on Mars in 1976. They were able to send us the first ever images of Mars’ surface. Making all those failed attempts worth it! 
Twenty more years passed before another spacecraft landed on Mars. This was the Pathfinder in 1997. It used airbags to land, bouncing five times before coming to a stop. 
The Curiosity Rover of 2012 is the most successful visitor to Mars so far. It has sent back a huge amount of useful data to Earth. Thanks to Curiosity we have now played music on another planet. It was only a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ but it’s a start! 
Excitement now builds as we wait for the launch of the Mars Rover 2020 Mission in July 2020. A competition was held for school children to come up with the name for this important mission. It has been very aptly named ‘Perseverance’.  


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