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Need to know ~ Places

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Mars

True color image of Mars taken by the OSIRIS instrument on the ESA Rosetta spacecraft during its February 2007 flyby of the planet

Photo: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Blue Martian Sunset

Photo: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Public Domain

Why current?

2021-03-10

On February 18, 2021, Mars got a new visitor: the NASA rover, Perseverance.  The rover touched down safely in Jezero Crater at just before 4 pm U.S. Eastern time.  After coming down through the Martian atmosphere, a parachute had opened to put the brakes on Perseverance’s speedy descent.  Then, as it approached the surface, a part of the spacecraft called a sky crane lowered the rover to the surface.  Once Perseverance made its landing, the sky crane flew to another location some distance from the rover, to land without disrupting the conditions nearby.

Jezero Crater is believed to have been the basin of a lake billions of years ago.  Although the crater has plenty of uneven terrain and a dense scattering of boulders, the area in the middle of the crater, where Perseverance landed, is very flat.  The vehicle was equipped with a special camera that surveyed conditions on the surface and helped the rover maneuver itself away from the tricky spots, finding just the right place to land.  

Perseverance will begin its mission by collecting samples from Jezero Crater.  But before that, the rover will take some time to get its equipment up and running.  It has begun taking pictures of its surroundings, some of which have already been seen by scientists back on Earth.  One of the rover’s instruments will collect gases from the atmosphere, storing some of the oxygen for humans who may land on the planet in the future.  It will use microphones to make the first ever sound recordings on Mars.

Just over a mile away is an area that used to be a river delta where scientists think there may be traces of former life on Mars.  Perseverance will roam around within the riverbed and around the area of the delta to collect rock samples.  It will then leave those samples in specific places, from which missions in the future will be able to pick them up.  The work of Perseverance is just the first in a series of steps that will be carried out over years to get Martian rocks back to Earth to be studied.  The scientists think that these samples will not be returned to Earth before 2031.

Perseverance is not alone.  Curiosity is another NASA rover exploring Mars.  It landed in 2012 and is wandering around in another area called Gale Crater.  China has a rover called Tianwen-1 that will land in May.  And the United Arab Emirates has a spacecraft currently in orbit around the planet.

More about Mars

– Mars is the 4th planet from the Sun.  It has two moons, both irregularly shaped and smaller than our moon.  They are called Phobos (= fear) and Deimos (= panic).  These are the names of the sons of Ares, the Greek god of war.  Mars is named after the Roman god of war.  It’s sometimes also called the “Red Planet.”

– The first record of Mars was made in 2000 BC by Egyptian astronomers.  The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all studied the planet and wrote about it.

– Because of the time it takes to make one rotation around its axis, the length of a day on Mars is about 37 minutes longer than an Earth day.  A Martian day is called a “sol.”

– Mars is farther from the Sun than Earth, and so it takes longer for it to make a complete revolution around the Sun.  A Mars year is 684 Earth days.

– At -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), the average temperature on Mars is much lower than Earth’s (which is 59 degrees F or 15 degrees C).

– The Martian atmosphere is 100 times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere.  Even the air pressure at the top of Mt. Everest is 50 times greater than it is on Mars.  Still, there are powerful winds that blow over the planet, stirring up the dust and dirt on the surface and forming great sand dunes.  Mars experiences enormous dust storms.  They can envelope the whole planet at once and last for weeks or even months.

– Even though Mars is only about half the size of Earth, the two planets have about the same amount of land.  This is because 71% of the Earth’s surface is water.

– Gravity’s pull is weaker on the surface of Mars.  Because of this, you could jump almost three times higher on Mars than on Earth!

– Olympus Mons, a volcano on Mars, is the tallest mountain in the whole Solar System.  It is 13 miles (21 km) high, which is about three times as tall as Mt. Everest!  Scientists think that this gigantic volcano could still be active because they have discovered traces of lava flows from the not-so-distant past.

– The Martian sky is a light red during the day.  But sunsets are blue.

– The surface of Mars is red because of the iron-rich rock and soil covering the planet.

– At the equator of Mars is an immense canyon called the Valles Marineris.   It is about 10 times the size of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, with a length of over 2,600 miles (4,200 km).  The canyon has a depth of 4 miles (7 km) in some places.

– Scientists believe that the Mars of millions of years ago had an atmosphere similar to Earth’s.  They also think that there was water on Mars and that temperatures were warmer.  They have discovered rocks that look like they were formed by water, and have identified lake- and riverbeds that are now dry.  Currently, the only water on Mars is located at the poles, in the form of ice sheets that lie under the surface.  A spacecraft orbiting Mars recently collected data that seems to show the possibility of a lake under the ice sheet at Mars’ south pole.  Scientists think that there might be more water underground on Mars.  The reason the presence of water on Mars is so significant is that it may be an indicator of as-yet undiscovered life forms on the planet, such as tiny bacteria that live underground.

Source: Overbye, Dennis, The New York Times, “Perseverance’s Pictures From Mars Show NASA Rover’s New Home,” https://www.nytimes.com/mars-nasacne, February 19, 2021;Witze, Alexandra, Nature, “Touch down! NASA’s Mars landing sparks new era of exploration,” https://www.nature.com/articles/, February 18, 2021; NASA Science, “Mars Facts,” https://mars.nasa.gov/all-about-mars/facts/Space Facts, “Mars Facts,” https://space-facts.com/mars/sciencetrek.org, “Mars: Facts,” https://sciencetrek.org/mars/facts.cfm; Greshko, Michael, National Geographic, “Planet Mars explained,” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/mars-1.