Space & Time


Mars, in astronomy, 4th planet from the sun, with an orbit next in order beyond that of the earth.

Physical Characteristics

Mars has a striking red appearance, and in its most favorable position for viewing, when it is opposite the sun, it is twice as bright as Sirius, the brightest star. Mars has a diameter of 4,200 mi (6,800 km), just over half the diameter of the earth, and its mass is only 11% of the earth's mass. The planet has a very thin atmosphere consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, with some nitrogen and argon. Mars has an extreme day-to-night temperature range, resulting from its thin atmosphere, from about 80°F; (27°C;) at noon to about −100°F; (−73°C;) at midnight; however, the high daytime temperatures are confined to less than 3 ft (1 m) above the surface.

Surface Features

A network of linelike markings first studied in detail (1877) by G. V. Schiaparelli was referred to by him as canali, the Italian word meaning "channels" or "grooves." Percival Lowell, then a leading authority on Mars, created a long-lasting controversy by accepting these "canals" to be the work of intelligent beings. Under the best viewing conditions, however, these features are seen to be smaller, unconnected features. The greater part of the surface area of Mars appears to be a vast desert, dull red or orange in color. This color may be due to various oxides in the surface composition, particularly those of iron. About one fourth to one third of the surface is composed of darker areas whose nature is still uncertain. Shortly after its perihelion Mars has planetwide dust storms that can obscure all its surface details.