Facts About Mars

Early tracks of Curiosity Rover - taken from rover
Early tracks of Curiosity Rover - taken from rover | Source
Blue pointing hand points out tracks, seen from space!!
Blue pointing hand points out tracks, seen from space!! | Source

Tire Tracks from the Red Planet

First they named the landing after Ray Bradbury- so fitting. Then they instituted the Mars Curiosity Twitter feed so you can be amongst the first to get a tweet from Mars.

Now - It is official. Anyone happening to cruise by the Red Planet may just see the first ever tire tracks that are visible from space. That is right; the good ship Curiosity has left its mark on Mars. The picture you are seeing is from NASA. It is showing off the tire tracks for the Curiosity, left as it takes off to look for likely rocks to test. Tracks were left by the previous rover, but not as deep and wide as these, which were seen by another NASA craft that is circling Mars. Now the Curiosity is looking for signs of life.

That is, after all, the whole reason it is here. For those of us who are science junkies of the outer space type, this landing has been a godsend. Never before has access to the flight, an ability to follow everything the crew back home sees (including the hunky Mohawk Guy) and now we get tweets from the rover as it rolls across the Martian plains.

I think I am living in a time of amazing stuff. The pictures keep flowing in, the rover is doing 360 degree pics of the area it sits in as it checks out all the instruments in its Canadian-made robotic arm. (Okay, I had to point that one out as I am Canadian and we are very proud of our contribution)

And who knows what it will find? It has already travelled 368 feet, or 112 meters to the rest of us on the metric system. That is about the length of an American Football Field – not bad for a first adventure. Once the arm is all checked out, it is on to Gleneig! That is the area it had plans to test. It will take about a week for it to get there, leaving those wide deep tracks the whole way.

Then we get to the really interesting stuff. Time and effort was spent to put together every kind of test we can imagine. We have the instruments. Back in Houston we have the brains to analyse what is sent. What will we find?

Mars Curiosity Landing - Taken Live!

Curiosity Rover - artists rendition
Curiosity Rover - artists rendition

Looking to Find New Facts About Mars – Soon!

Well the facts we do know about Mars may be changing in the next few years as the exploratory rover Curiosity (what a great name for it!) has landed successfully on Mars. You know, it is very cool to think that the little red dot in the sky you see, if you know where to look, has a little buggy on it right now, looking for life! We have had plenty of time to think about those questionable returns from the last trip and with this new opportunity to see if we can discover if true life as we know it here ever existed on Mars at one time, it is pretty exciting.

If you can’t picture how difficult it is to even land something successfully by remote, picture this: try to imagine hitting a golf ball in San Francisco and then having to in one shot hit it with enough force and accuracy that you make that hole in one – in London! That is about the scope of what they were trying to do to land this rover by remote from earth. To succeed was celebration enough – at least to start.

The next ten years could be critical for many scientists interested in learning more about the possibilities of life outside of the Earth, and about our closest fellow planet in general. This could be the historic moment when we truly start to explore outside of our little sphere of influence. After all, the moon is still pretty much in our back yard when it comes to space. Mars, however, is a whole new world with no relationship to our own earth outside of the fact that we both circle the same sun. What else we have in common remains to be seen.

With 17 cameras mounted on it and a drill on the robotic arm ready to take up core samples deep into the planet’s surface, we can analyze molecules on the planet Mars from Mars instead of waiting to bring them back to Earth. We will see even more of the planet then the two previous rovers did and since we sent Curiosity to an area we have not sent any kind of probe to before, this is all new territory.

If those organic compounds we found the last time, water and methane, prove to exist in more places on the planet we may be in for some really big discoveries to even the simplest of questions. What, after all, does define life?

Mars Has Some Record Setting Geography

Most of us think that we know quite a bit about Mars. After all, it is one of those planets you can see with the naked eye and everyone at some point wonders about “Martians”. We have even had a TV show called My Favorite Martian many years ago. But there are some facts about Mars that I thought were pretty cool because they tell us that Mars has some geographic points that make it a record setting planet for our Solar System. Here are three facts you may not know about Mars that make it a standout planet from anyone’s point of view.

Mars is Smaller than Earth

Most of us when we think of the planet Mars, consider it to be a planet that is around the same size as Earth. But the truth is, Mars has a diameter that is only about half that of the Earths. Of course, because it has a smaller diameter it stands to reason that it is not as heavy as Earth either. Mars has only one tenth of the mass of the Earth and the surface gravity is about 35% of the Earths as well. So those high jumps you did on Earth would be three times as high on Mars!

Mars has the Tallest Mountain in the Solar System

You would think that a planet only half the size of the Earth with around a third of its gravity would not have really tall mountains, let alone a mountain bigger than anything on Earth, or anywhere else in the entire Solar System. But Olympus Mons is the tallest mountain in the Solar System, towering above the surrounding plains by 27 kilometers. It made this tall through the same kind of action that made the big volcanoes on Hawaii, and in fact is when scientists looked at how old the lava flows are on Olympus Mons, they are thinking that the Mars volcano might actually still be active. Wouldn’t that be exciting to see?

Mars has the longest and deepest canyon in the Solar System

Because Mars has so many distinctive features across its face, it isn’t surprising that it has not only the Solar System’s tallest mountain, but it also has its longest and deepest canyon. This very distinct feature on the face of Mars is called the Valles Marineris and it is along the equator of Mars for almost 4000 miles. That makes it long enough to stretch completely across the United States from the western coast of California to the farthest reach on the Eastern Seaboard. As if that wasn’t enough, there are places along the Valles Marineris where the floor of the trench is 7 kilometers deep.

So you can see that although Mars is by no means the largest planet, the heaviest planet, the brightest planet or the one with lots of life on it, it is still a very distinctive and special planet. We don’t know as much as we would like to about it, which is why we are planning on sending more rovers and spacecraft to it in the next years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found more interesting geographical facts about Mars in those trips over the years to come.

Martian "Canals” History

About 120 years ago, a prominent astronomer of his time, Percival Lowell, claimed that he could prove the presense of a civilization on Mars through the fact he saw canals on the surface of the planet Mars. Hebecame quite convinced that the planet not only could support life,but that it could and did support intelligent life. This was at the time thought of as one of the actual facts about Mars, because many astronomers of the time could see lines on the surface of Mars that looked like canals. The theory at the time was that the dying civilazation on Mars built the canals to bring water down from the poles to the cities at the equator.

Lowell was a well known astronomer of his time and wrote numerous books about Mars that made the science of astronomy much more accessable to the common person in the street. He based his idea of the canals on Mars on sketches of the planet by an earlier Italian scientist named Giovanni Schiaparelli. Giovanni had written a book where he named the long dark lines he saw on the surface of the planet “canali” which means channel in italian. Giovanni only meant that they were long channels in the martian landscape and never claimed that an intelligent hand was at work to create them. That concept would belong to Lowell.

When Lowell first began to look at Mars he was aware of the sketches by Schiaparelli and thought that the channels looked too straight and long to be natural. This was when he began to postulate that they were canals built by a long-gone civilization to try and save their doomed planet from turning into the dry and dusty planet we have come to know.

The ironic thing is that, even though we have long disproved Lowell's Martian Canals as nothing more than an optical illusion created by dust and dirt in the earth's atmosphere, streaks of black in several craters have been photographed by an orbiting spacecraft. These seem to prove that Lowell might not have been that far off track when he claimed that water once existed on Mars. It may not have been in enormous channels that run from the north pole to the equator to bring water to a dieing civilization, but it may have moved water on the planet none the less. And that is one of the facts on Mars I would love to see proved!

Two Moons and Mars Hoax in August 2010

The recycled email hoax that comes to our computers every year near August 27 claims that there is going to be the closest encounter between Mars and Earth in recorded history.  The interesting thing about this email hoax is that the event actually did happen in 2003.  The moon that you see today is about 75 times smaller than the moon that was seen on August 27, 2003.  On that day, the view was a wonderful experience for amateur sky watchers.  To the naked eye on August 27, 2003, Mars looked like a great big orange star.  To those who pulled out their telescopes to take a look, you could see the Martian landscape and its polar ice caps.

However, the event was in 2003 and every year since then, the fake email makes the rounds again.  Well, August 27th, 2010 has come and gone but there was no giant Mars in the sky – yet, the rumor still persists.

As an Earth science teacher, I had several students ask me this year why I did not tell them about the close encounter between Earth and Mars.  I asked my students why they thought the Earth/Mars event was going to happen and they told me that this was their only chance to see Mars up so close in their lifetime - why didn't I know about it?  It is very hard to dissuade a teenager from believing something that they learn from an email on the Internet.  It was of no consequence to the kids when I told them that if Mars was ever as close to the Earth as the moon is to our planet, then Earth would very likely change its orbit around the sun and the tides would wreak havoc on all the habitable parts of the planet.  The only thing that really mattered to my students is that the Internet said it was so – so it must be true.

To set my students straight, I did a quick explanation of what really happens in the solar system.  The relationship in space between Earth and Mars is never exactly repeated because each planet orbits the Sun on its own elliptical path.  Planets are not in perfectly circular orbits and, during their elliptical paths around the Sun, planets vary in their exact distances to each other over time.  For example, Mars' orbit means that its distance from Earth can range from 34.6 million miles (55.7 million kilometers) to almost 250 million miles (401.3 million kilometers).

The path that each planet takes actually rotates through space over thousands of years.  The main thing that alters the distance between Mars and Earth is the fact that Earth takes a path closer to the Sun.  Inner planets orbit the Sun faster than outer planets.  Earth requires 365 days to go around the Sun once while Mars needs 687 Earth-days to make their year.  So, during this time Earth and Mars will pass each other and when the pass occurs, Earth and Mars will be on the same side of the Sun.  This is called opposition but the separation distances between the two planets during these oppositions change vastly. That is why the separation distances are different each year.

On August 27, 2003, Mars made an incredibly tight approach to Earth, coming about 34.7 million miles (56 million kilometers) away and that's what started all the hoax furor in the first place.  Such a near pass hadn't happened in nearly 60,000 years, and it won't happen again until August 28, 2287.  Which makes me think that, in a way, the Mars hoax email is correct…you will not see Mars that close again in this lifetime unless of course the average life span changes to about 300 years old.

Mars and Earth Elliptical Orbits

Will Mars be Close to Earth in 2010?

There have been rumors on the Internet lately about Mars being so close to Earth that it will look like a second moon in the sky on August 27th, 2010.  These rumors have been circulating for about seven years – always about this same time of the year.  There are all sorts of different messages to remind people to be sure to look into the night sky on August 27th to see the strange phenomenon.  They warn you that you will not be able to see it again in your lifetime.  In reality, the Earth was 314 million kilometers away from Mars on August 27th, 2010 which is about as far away as it gets.  So what prompts these rumors to begin each year?

It seems to trace back to August 27th, 2003 when the Mars was larger than usual.  It was 56,000 kilometers from Earth - which is as close as it had been for thousands of years.  Mars will not be that close to Earth again until August 28, 2287.  Because Mars was so close back in 2003, it was easily seen with the naked eye.  And, with a telescope, people could see the polar ice caps of Mars with more clarity than at any other time in human history.  That was a very big deal for a lot of astronomers and amateur sky watchers.  It seems that the enthusiasm generated back in 2003 has spawned the now rampant Mars Hoax that comes across our emails every year in August.

In reality, for the year 2010, Earth and Mars will be closest to each other on October 30th at 3:19 Universal Time at a distance of about 69 million kilometers.  To someone just looking up into the sky, it will look like a bright dot of light or a nice bright red or orange star.  Mars will not look like the giant full moon that the Internet seems to be in such a twitter about (no pun intended).  Most people will see it rising at sundown as well as way overhead at midnight if they know where to look.

August 27th, 2010 has been here and gone but there is still some sky-watching fun to be had.  Between now and October, as Mars gets closer to Earth, go outside at sunset and face west.

You will see a bright light which is Venus, the third brightest object in the sky next to the moon and the sun.  Then, begin to search to the right of Venus and you will see a small orange-ish looking star that is not twinkling.  When you see this orange looking star near Venus, you have found Mars.  Happy hunting!

Mars and Earth Orbit Diagram

Mars and Earth's Orbits

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