The Planet Mars

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on space and time. There have been over 40 attempts to send spacecraft to Mars, over half of which have been successful. There have been rover's on Mars since the 1990s and there are currently a number of ideas for sending people to Mars.

Last updated on 5th June 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. Characteristics of Mars

Mars is the fourth closest planet to the Sun and takes about 687 days to orbit. A day on Mars is less than an hour longer than a day on Earth[1]. Mars is the next brightest natural object in the sky after Venus, and like Mercury and Venus, Mars is named after a Roman god, the god of war[2].

Photograph of Mars.

Mars, a mosaic of images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Public domain.

Mars is red for the same reason that rust is red, because the iron on its surface is oxidised. Mars has a thin atmosphere, mostly composed of carbon dioxide, and its surface is covered in craters, inactive volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and ice caps. Mars hosts the largest volcano in the Solar System, Olympus Mons, and the largest canyon, Valles Marineris[3].

Planets in the Solar system, sizes are approximately to scale. Jupiter is the largest planet, followed by Saturn.

The planets, sizes approximately to scale. Image credit: Dave Jarvis/CC-SA.

The four inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, and the Moon. Sizes are approximately to scale, and the composition is shown.

The four inner planets to scale. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

2. Mars' moons

2.1 Phobos and Deimos

Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which were discovered by American astronomer Asaph Hall in 1877[4]. These are thought to be asteroids that were captured by Mars' gravitational pull[5].

Mariner 9 first photographed Phobos and Deimos in 1971. They were later photographed by Viking 1 and Viking 2, and many of the other missions bound for Mars, in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1988, the Soviet Union launched two probes to Phobos: Phobos 1 and Phobos 2. The first was lost, and the second only relayed a small amount of data. The Russian Space Agency launched a mission to Phobos in 2011, known as Phobos-Grunt, but it was unsuccessful. NASA is currently considering new missions to Mars' moons.

Photograph of Mars' moon Phobos

Phobos. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Photograph of Mars' moon Deimos

Deimos. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

3. Missions to Mars

There have been over 40 attempts to send spacecraft to Mars, about 25 of which have been successful.

The Soviet Union made eight failed attempts to launch a probe to Mars in the 1960s, starting with Mars 1960A and Mars 1960B in 1960, and Mars 1962A, Mars 1962B, and Mars 1 in 1962. These were followed by Zond 2 in 1964, and Mars 1969A and Mars 1969B in 1969.

NASA made its first attempt to send a probe to Mars in 1964, with Mariner 3 and Mariner 4. Mariner 3 did not send back any useful information but Mariner 4 was successful, and produced the first images of another planet ever to be returned from deep space. Mariner 5 went to Venus, but Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 successfully flew past Mars in 1969.

Mariner 8 and Mariner 9 were due to launch in 1971. Mariner 8 failed, but the Mariner 9 mission was successful. It became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, and remained in orbit for over a year. Mariner 9 found evidence for water on Mars, and showed that it had once contained rivers, which had led to the formation of large and complex canyons.

The Soviet Union launched 11 probes to Mars in the 1970s, starting with Cosmos 419, Mars 2, and Mars 3, which were launched in 1971. Cosmos 419 was a failure, but Mars 2 and Mars 3 were successful. It was planned for both Mars 2 and Mars 3 to land on the planet, and although Mars 2 crashed, it became the first human-made object to reach the Martian surface. Mars 3 landed successfully but only transmitted data for 14.5 seconds.

Mars 2 and Mars 3 were followed by Mars 4, Mars 5, Mars 6, and Mars 7, which were all launched in 1973, and were all at least partially successful.

NASA launched Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1975. These both contained an orbiter and a lander, and both were successful. They returned the first colour photographs of Mars, and confirmed that Mars had once contained both rain and oceans.

Map of Mars, with landing sites marked.

Mars landing sites (yellow). Image credit: modified by Helen Klus, original image by NASA/AFP/Public domain.

The Soviet Union intended for Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 to pass Mars on the way to Phobos. Both launched successfully in 1988, however they lost contact with Phobos 1 before it arrived.The Russian Federal Space Agency attempted to send a probe to Mars in 1996, Mars 96, but it failed to leave the Earth's orbit.

NASA made several failed attempts to send a probe to Mars in the 1990s, with the Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter, and the Mars Polar Lander. They also had two successes, with the Mars Global Surveyor, and Mars Pathfinder, both of which launched in 1996.

The Mars Global Surveyor went into orbit around Mars, and continued to send back information until 2006. Mars Pathfinder landed on the planet with its own miniature Rover, Sojourner. It returned about 17,000 images, monitored the weather, and performed chemical analyses of rocks and soil. Data from both missions indicated that Mars may have once have been warm and wet, with flowing water.

NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter was launched in 2001, and found evidence of frozen water on the Martian surface. It's currently still in orbit around Mars, and still transmitting data back to Earth.

Photograph of a valley on Mars.

Chasma Boreale, a valley on Mars, a mosaic of images taken by Mars Odyssey. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Public domain.

Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), now part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), attempted to land the Nozomi spacecraft on Mars in 2003, however it failed to enter into orbit.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Mars Express in 2003. This contained an orbiter and lander, Beagle 2 - named after British naturalist Charles Darwin's HMS Beagle. The lander failed, but the orbiter was successful, and confirmed the presence of frozen water and carbon dioxide at the Martian poles. It's still in orbit around Mars, and still transmitting data back to Earth.

NASA also launched probes to Mars in 2003, which contained the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers. These both landed successfully, and the Opportunity Rover found rocks that are thought to have once been underwater, in a salty sea. Opportunity is still active, but NASA lost communication with Spirit in 2010.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005, and attained Martian orbit in 2006. This mapped the terrain and weather in order to find suitable landing sites for future missions. It's currently still orbiting Mars, and transmitting data back to Earth. In 2015, data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used to show that Mars currently contains flowing water.

NASA's Phoenix spacecraft launched in 2007, and successfully landed on Mars in 2008. The ESA's Rosetta spacecraft passed Mars in 2007, on its way to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and NASA's Dawn spacecraft passed Mars in 2009, on its way to the asteroid belt. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) attempted to put Yinghuo-1 in orbit around Mars in 2011, however the mission failed to escape the Earth's orbit.

Photograph of frost on Mars.

Frost on Mars around the Phoenix lander. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/Public domain.

Photograph of sand dunes on Mars.

Sand dunes, images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Public domain.

Photograph of sand dunes on Mars.

Sand dunes, images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Public domain.

Photograph of Mars's north pole.

North pole, image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Public domain.

NASA has since sent two more probes to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory and the MAVEN (the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter. Both are still in operation. The Mars Science Laboratory launched in 2007, and landed its Rover, Curiosity, in 2012. MAVEN launched in 2013, and begun studying the Martian atmosphere in 2014.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as the Mangalyaan orbiter, in 2013. It begun orbiting Mars the following year, and is also still in operation.

Finally, the ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency launched ExoMars in March 2016. This mission is looking for evidence of past or present life on Mars. They plan to extend the mission with a Rover, which is due to be launched in 2020.

A number of landers are also due to be launched in the near future. NASA plan to launch InSight (the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander) in 2018. This will land on Mars and study its geology, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute plan to send a lander as part of its MetNet program in about 2019, which will study the atmosphere and weather.

NASA and the ESA may launch the Mars Sample Return Mission in the mid-2020s, which would attempt to return a sample of Martian soil to Earth, and finally, the Russian Federal Space Agency may also send a lander, Mars-Grunt, in the mid-2020s.

There are currently also many private missions to Mars being planned, including crewed missions.

4. References

  1. NASA, 'Planetary Fact Sheet', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. NASA, 'Mars Exploration Overview', last accessed 01-06-17.

  3. NASA, 'Mars: Basic Facts', last accessed 01-06-17.

  4. Hall, A., 1878, 'Discovery of satellites of Mars', Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 38, pp.205-209.

  5. Veverka, J., and P. Thomas, 1979, 'Phobos and Deimos - A preview of what asteroids are like', Asteroids, 1, pp.628-651.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.

Space & Time

Pre 20th Century theories

1. History of Constellations

2. History of Latitude

3. History of Longitude

4. Models of the Universe

5. Force and Energy

6. Newton's theory of Gravity

7. Age of the Universe

20th Century discoveries

1. Special Relativity

2. General Relativity

3. Big Bang theory

4. History of Galaxies

5. Life Cycles of Stars

6. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

7. Neutron Stars and Black Holes

Missions to planets

1. The planet Mercury

2. The planet Venus

3. The planet Earth

3.1 The Earth's Moon

4. The planet Mars

4.1 The Asteroid Belt

5. The planet Jupiter

6. The planet Saturn

7. The planet Uranus

8. The planet Neptune

Beyond the planets

1. Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

2. Pioneer and Voyager

3. Discoveries of Exoplanets