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Mars: All About the Red Planet

March 23, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Our neighboring planet Mars has long been subject to Earthly questions and speculations; how much do we really know about the fourth planet from the Sun?

Little Green Men on Mars?

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Long a speculation of astronomers, the possibility of ancient life on Mars remains a fascinating mystery. In the late 19th century some astonomers believed that Martians were actually living on Mars and a 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ "War of the Worlds" convinced millions of terrified listeners that creatures had landed on Earth, but exploration of the planet disproved these theories, finding Mars to be a desert-like planet, apparently void of life. However, according to the Lunar and Planetary Institute, many modern scientists believe that Mars may once have had the necessary climate and atmosphere to support life.

Mars’ Topography: Images and Information

NASA’s atlas catalogs Mars’ global terrain; use it to find out about the planet’s varied regions and discover great images of the Martian landscape: sand dunes, volcanoes, ice caps, and more. NASA also offers some good multimedia options, mainly video and audio clips from Mars. Listen to NASA’s podcast about sending probes to the Martian North Pole.

Google Mars provides a color-coded relief map of the Martian landscape, as well as maps showing landscape details from the visible and the infrared spectrum. Click around to discover the names of mountains, craters, and other geographic landmarks.

Solar Views offers a good introduction to the basic statistics of Mars (the composition of atmosphere, temperature information, etc). Scroll down the page to explore Mars from different angles and see an illustration of Mars' interior. Toward the bottom of this page you'll find links to videos, such as the “Rotating Mars Movie” and “Animation of the Martian Poles.” 

The Lunar and Planetary Institute offers a gallery of images of Mars, including closeup views of ridges, volcanoes, and craters. The glossary and suggested reading list will further your research into the red planet.

Missions to Mars

There were many U.S. crafts that flew by and even orbited Mars to take pictures of the planet in the 1960s and early 70s; the Viking Project was the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft on Mars and send back pictures.

The Mars Global Surveryor was the longest and most successful mission to the red planet. Initially launched in 1996, the Mars Global Surveyor helped discover potential landing sites for other rover missions, and found evidence that water may still flow in short bursts on the planet. The craft remained working four times as long as was originally thought, and succumbed to what scientists think was battery failure in late 2006.

In 2003, NASA launched the Mars Exploration Rover Mission; rovers Spirit and Opportunity  landed on Mars in early 2004 and were expected to survey the planet for 90 days. They have now been on Mars for more than five years and are still functioning; however, electrical connections and moving parts are showing signs of temperature-related fatigue. Due to the extreme temperature changes that Mars undergoes in a 24-hour period (70 degrees Fahrenheit at midday to -110 degrees Fahrenheit at night), the mechanical and electrical parts of the Mars rovers are deteriorating.

To see a full list of U.S. missions to Mars past, present, and future, visit NASA's Mars Exploration: Missions page.

Could Humans Live on Mars?

The red planet in its current state could not support human life. However, scientists and science fiction writers have long hypothesized about the possibility of inhabiting other planets in our solar system.

The American Museum of Natural History explores the possibility of terraforming, or making Mars Earth-like, so that humans could live on Mars. Not something that could be done anytime in the near future (and the process would take thousands, if not millions, of years) terraforming would restore the atmosphere of Mars and later introduce plant life and animal life.

Earth & Sky magazine has radio interviews and podcasts with Kim Binstead, chief scientist and lead chef at the 2007 Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station in which she discusses what astronauts might eat on an extended mission on Mars.

A Traveler's Guide to Mars would be the perfect read for preparing for a trip to Mars (if it were possible). It’s designed as a guide for visitors. In this guide, Mars is a place of canyons and volcanoes, mesas, and barren plains, making the red planet seem similar to our own home: Earth.
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