Mars was among the first bodies in the Solar System to be viewed through a telescope. Early astronomers saw faint surface features along with evidence of changing seasons and speculated about an advanced Martian civilisation. Though these ideas are comical today, the search for more primitive life continues.
More recently, six-wheeled rovers have confirmed that water ice exists below the surface.
Photo: Mars taken by Mars Global Surveyor (NASA/JPL/MSSS)
The Red Planet continues to fascinate mankind.
Scientists tell the story of Martian meteorite ALH84001's discovery.
Each year scientists hunt for meteorites in Antarctica because the ice and snow make it easier to spot dark space rocks. In 1984, the team found a special Martian meteorite that came to be known as ALH840001. In the 1990s a NASA team announced that they had found tiny fossils in this rock. Many in the scientific community are critical of this finding.
Scientists make a controversial discovery.
NASA's Dr Everett Gibson describes finding what he and his colleagues believed were tiny fossils in a meteorite from Mars called ALH84001. There are many critics of the NASA team's theory that this rock is evidence of past life on the Red Planet. Their findings were announced in 1996.
Scientists believe they understand the Martian rock's journey to Earth.
Scientists studying a meteorite called ALH84001, discovered in Antarctica in 1984, believe they can tell a lot about its history. This meteorite has been subjected to intense study because in the 1990s a NASA team announced they had found it contains tiny fossils. Many in the scientific community are critical of this finding.
Rocks from Mars can make the long journey to Earth.
Asteroids and comets have struck Mars with so much force that rocks from the planet's surface were ejected into space. Some of those rocks have made the journey to Earth, falling through the atmosphere to become meteorite deposits.
An American astronomer discovers Mars' moons.
The 19th and early 20th century American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered Mars' small moons, Phobos and Deimos. Observations of the moons' orbits allowed others to calculate the Red Planet's gravity, which is just under half that of Earth's.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second smallest planet in the Solar System, after Mercury. Named after the Roman god of war, it is often described as the "Red Planet" because the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth. The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the second highest known mountain within the Solar System (the tallest on a planet), and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small and irregularly shaped. These may be captured asteroids, similar to 5261 Eureka, a Mars trojan.
Until the first successful Mars flyby in 1965 by Mariner 4, many speculated about the presence of liquid water on the planet's surface. This was based on observed periodic variations in light and dark patches, particularly in the polar latitudes, which appeared to be seas and continents; long, dark striations were interpreted by some as irrigation channels for liquid water. These straight line features were later explained as optical illusions, though geological evidence gathered by unmanned missions suggests that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface at some earlier stage of its life. In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles and at mid-latitudes. The Mars rover Spirit sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules in March 2007. The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.
Mars is host to seven functioning spacecraft: five in orbit – the Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN and Mars Orbiter Mission – and two on the surface – Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity. Defunct spacecraft on the surface include MER-A Spirit and several other inert landers and rovers such as the Phoenix lander, which completed its mission in 2008. Observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars. In 2013, NASA's Curiosity rover discovered that Mars' soil contains between 1.5% and 3% water by mass (about two pints of water per cubic foot or 33 liters per cubic meter, albeit attached to other compounds and thus not freely accessible).
Mars can easily be seen from Earth with the naked eye, as can its reddish coloring. Its apparent magnitude reaches −3.0, which is surpassed only by Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and the Sun. Optical ground-based telescopes are typically limited to resolving features about 300 km (186 miles) across when Earth and Mars are closest because of Earth's atmosphere.