When you look up at the sky and see the small orange dot that is Mars, what does it conjure for you?
Perhaps you envision little rovers trucking around or imagine stepping off a spacecraft for the first time to find out whether the face on Mars is really just a mesa or is actually an alien superstructure. (My vote is for the alien thing, though that would make colonization a little difficult so … undecided.)
Maybe you think of nothing at all, and just enjoy the night sky for what it is: ageless. Whatever your take, learning more about the Red Planet will at least make you a better cocktail party guest, so let’s take a closer look at Mars and all its factoids today!
Here are our top 14 facts about Mars.
1. Mars Is Named After the God of War
Most cultures throughout time have had a deity related to war. For the Aztecs, it was Huitzilopochtli. For the Celts, it was Morrigan. For the Greeks, Ares, and for the Romans, it was the Latinized version of the older Hellenic version. The Ancient Romans named their war god “Mars.”
Mars was the son of Jupiter and Juno – the Roman versions of the better-known Zeus and Hera in Greek mythology – as well as the lover of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek), despite the fact that they both had other partners.
Although Mars is the god who has the largest following, in ancient times, the goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek) also served as a goddess of war.
We commemorate Mars every month, though we don’t even know it, when the month of March rolls around.
2. Mars Has Water … and How
While Mars looks like a dry and dusty, red and rusty rock in all the photos, it’s home to a number of water sources.
“Mars is rich in minerals that formed in water, and in some cases still hold water,” explains The Planetary Society. “These aptly named hydrated minerals can be found around the planet.” Not only does it have polar ice caps just like Earth, it boasts pockets of ice beneath the surface all across the planet.
Plus, the lifeless-looking soil itself contains water, if only we have the technology to make it available. As the above source says, “Among the proposed methods of extracting water from rocks includes microwaves and the somewhat counterintuitive method of blasting minerals with water to extract more water.
Some methods call for the use of small, autonomous robots that could mine water before humans arrive.”
3. The Planet Is Red for a Reason!
Oh, did I not already say rusty? Wait, yes, I did … because y’all, Mars is hecka rusty. That’s what gives the planet’s surface its color.
What is rust, you’re wondering? Nothing more than iron and oxygen interacting in a moist environment. That’s why you’re pretty patio wrought-iron patio furniture goes all crumbly and reddish after a decade or so.
Well, the same process happened on Mars over billions of years, giving it that rosy tint.
4. It Used to Be Warmer and Wetter There
Mars isn’t nearly as hot as our sister planet, Venus. However, it used to be much warmer and wetter than it is now.
Today, the average daytime temperature on Mars clocks in at a dismal -81 degrees Fahrenheit, or -62.8 degrees Celsius. That’s fast enough to kill you in about 5 minutes (if we ignore for a moment the fact that you’d die much quicker from asphyxiation).
The average temp on Earth is 59 degrees Fahrenheit or 15 degrees Celsius!
5. Mars Is Our Best Terraforming Bet
Among all the planets in the solar system, Mars is hands-down our best bet for terraforming.
Some people point to the moon, whose formal name in English is Luna. They point out that it’s much closer than Mars, a trip of only a few days rather than 8 months or so.
However, there’s no evidence whatsoever of liquid water on Mars, which would mean we’d have to truck the ingredients for it up from the surface of Earth – way too spendy.
On Mars, the water is already there. We’re not just talking about polar ice caps and hydrated minerals, either. Recent Martian exploration has turned up evidence of actual subterranean lakes of liquid water.
As Science News Explores writes, “It could contain at least 10 billion liters (2.6 billion gallons) of liquid water. That’s roughly the volume of water contained by 4,000 Olympic size swimming pools.” And that’s just at one site!
Truly, our exploration of Mars has only just begun.
Plus, while Mars lacks a magnetosphere or magnetic field (which protects us from radiation), we could build up the needed protection with a thick atmosphere. Happily, most of the ingredients in our atmosphere are available in their raw form on Mars.
Note that some scientists do conclude we could never form a thick enough atmosphere to sufficiently warm the planet and provide breathable oxygen, but most are much more hopeful.
6. Mars Is Still a Dynamic Planet
Earthquakes, volcanoes, and weather – oh, my! Yes, Mars has them all, just like Earth.
That’s a good thing, though. Geologic activity indicates that Mars has a molten iron core, the same way Earth (and Venus) do. A warm core means we can count on geothermal energy and, beneath the surface, more liquid water like the source discussed above.
7. China Was the Second Nation to Land on Mars
The Soviet Union was the first nation to touch an unmanned vehicle to the surface of Mars, followed by the United States.
Since then, China has also joined the party and is only the second country (after the U.S.) to successfully land a rover on the Red Planet.
8. There Are Six Rovers on Mars
In May 2021, China’s rover, Zhurong, landed in Utopia Planitia. It joins five American rovers: Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance. Today, the Curiosity rover, Perseverance rover, and Zhurong rover are still in operation.
9. It Has Two Moons
The Red Planet has two moons, though they’re much smaller than Earth’s. Phobos and Deimos are named after the Greek gods of panic and terror, which is kind of scary. However, there’s a good reason for this, as Phobos and Deimos were frequent companions of the god Ares, and are never far from war. Still, not super cheerful.
Here’s a fact that’s actually a little more fun: these moons are among the smallest in the entire solar system.
They’re so small that they don’t even have enough of their own gravity to compact them into rounded shapes, instead looking much more like asteroids.
They orbit quite quickly, as well. Phobos makes its transit three times a day, which makes sense since it sits only 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) above the Martian surface. Deimos is a little statelier, taking 30 hours to make it around the planet.
10. Mars Is About Half the Size of Earth
According to NASA, “If Earth were the size of a nickel, Mars would be about as big as a raspberry.” To which I say: that’s either a very large nickel or a very small raspberry, but hey, I guess math isn’t NASA’s strong suit? (Kidding, guys, in all sincerity … you’re the literal smartest.)
The takeaway here is that Mars still has plenty of surface area on which we can live. And since it doesn’t yet have liquid oceans, we’re looking at a lot of viable land mass!
11. It’s About 50 Percent Farther Away from the Sun Than Earth
The downside of Mars is that it’s much farther from the sun. Not only does that mean we have to travel quite a ways to get there (goodbye, holiday celebrations with colonizing family members), but it’s a lot colder, as discussed above.
12. Martial Sols Are Similar to Earth Days
The day-night cycle on Mars is very similar to that of Earth. To be precise, a Martian sol (its version of a day) is 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds long.
That does mean Martian settlers could never sync their clocks up to Earth’s. However, that doesn’t really matter anyway. The two planets are so far apart that communication takes between 5 and 20 minutes to get from one planet to another, depending on their positions in the solar system at the time.
The more salient fact is that, for anyone intrepid enough to travel there, their biological clocks wouldn’t have to do much adjusting to the cycle.
13. Mars Is Tilted on Its Axis
Mars has a tilted axis. If you stuck a toothpick through a marble and held the toothpick straight downward, that would be a rotation of 0 degrees. Mars sits at an axial tilt of 25 degrees, which is remarkably similar to Earth’s tilt of 23.4 degrees.
While this might seem like a pretty dry fact, it actually has significant repercussions for terraforming the planet. Why? Because a tilted axis is how seasons are made.
“Like Earth, Mars has distinct seasons, but they last longer than seasons here on Earth since Mars takes longer to orbit the Sun,” says NASA. “And while here on Earth the seasons are evenly spread over the year, lasting 3 months (or one quarter of a year), on Mars the seasons vary in length because of Mars’ elliptical, egg-shaped orbit around the Sun.”
While this isn’t ideal for crops that have developed on Earth, seasons are nonetheless important. Many plants can’t germinate if they don’t have a cold period followed by a warmer one, for instance.
An environment that mimics Earth even somewhat is vastly better than having to rely on greenhouses for all our terraforming efforts.
14. The Seasons Be Crazy, Y’all
That said, the seasons are straight whack on Mars. Here on Earth, our seasons are roughly equal, with spring and fall typically feeling shorter in more temperate regions. That said, meteorologists still agree that each season has three months.
On the Red Planet, that’s far from the case. Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is 194 sols, while summer is 178. Fall is 142 sols and winter is 154.
On the plus side, that’s a nice long spring for your veggies! (Or, in the Southern Hemisphere, a nice long autumn, which is also good for Ye Olde Garden.)
At the end of the day, maybe the weirdest thing about Mars is that it’s not so different from Earth at all … and given it may be our new home one day, I’m calling that lucky.