Mars 101 | National Geographic


To the ancient Romans, the planet Mars was symbolic of blood and war. But to many people today, the red planet may hold the key for a bright, new future for humanity.

The story of Mars began about 4.5 billion years ago, when gas and dust swirled together to form the fourth planet from the Sun.

Mars is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, with a diameter just shy of the width of Africa. In fact, its entire surface area is similar to that of all of Earth’s continents combined. Much like its terrestrial cousin, Mars is dense and has a rocky composition. At the center of the planet is a core made of iron, nickel, and sulfur, which may have created a protective magnetic field during Mars’s earlier years.

Enveloping the core is a rocky mantle made of silicate minerals and a crust rich in iron. These iron minerals react with the trace amounts of oxygen in Mars’s atmosphere and rusts, giving the planet its signature reddish hue. While its blood-like appearance inspired the ancient Romans to name Mars after their god of war, the planet’s rusty color could be considered symbolic of the planet’s prime days long past.

Today, Mars is dry, desolate, and cold (with temperatures dropping as low as -225 degrees Fahrenheit). But billions of years ago, the planet was much warmer, more geologically active, and had a watery surface. While its blood-like appearance inspired the ancient Romans to name Mars after their god of war, the planet’s rusty color could be considered symbolic of the planet’s prime days long past.

Lake-beds and river valleys snake along the face of Mars, indicating that liquid water was, for a time, present. Volcanoes, such as Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system at three times the height of Mt. Everest, once erupted with lava. But by about 50 million years ago, soon after Earth’s dinosaurs died out, Mars’s volcanoes also went extinct. Water on the red planet still exists today, but mostly in the form of polar ice caps.

Because of factors such as the presence of water, some scientists believe life may have existed on the red planet — and may exist again.

Since the 1960’s, space programs from around the world have launched missions to Mars in attempts to understand the planet’s past, present, and potential for sustaining life.

Life on another planet may well be out of reach for the near future.

But if any planet could give us hope, Mars may hold the key to the survival of humanity.

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