Fast Facts on the Planet Mars History Size Atmosphere and More

About the planet Mars, fast facts including history, size, atmosphere and more.


The only planet that has had an observatory established solely for its study is Mars.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, astronomers had noted the changing face of Mars. In 1881, Schiaparelli presented his maps of Mar's surface, drawn after 5 years of intensive observation. On Mars he saw many straight lines that seemed to form a complicated pattern. He called these lines canali, Italian for "channels." Inevitably, this was mistranslated into English as "canals." It was the conclusion of observers that there must be intelligent life on Mars seeking to conserve and distribute its scarce water by building canals from its polar ice caps to its cultivated fields.

None made so much of the idea as did Percival Lowell, a rich American aristocrat. He built the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1894 expressly to study Mars. Until his death in 1916, this wealthy and dedicated man had thousands of photographs taken of the planet. Detailed drawings made showed not only canals but also oases--all the features of a highly developed civilization.

Unfortunately for all the romanticists, Mars cannot sustain life. Its surface atmosphere is only 1/100 of that on earth. Although thin, and mostly carbon dioxide, it can have tremendous dust storms that last for months and cover huge portions of its pockmarked moonlike surface.

Despite its red color, apparently caused by iron oxide dust, Mars reaches a maximum of only 80deg.F. while at night it may cool off to a frigid 95deg.F. below zero. So the combination of distance--1 1/2 times that of the earth from the sun--and its small size--its mass is a little greater than 1/10 that of the earth--makes Mars inhospitable to life. Still, the polar ice caps remain a mystery waiting for a future space probe to solve.

The planets that lie beyond Mars differ greatly from the 4 inner planets. With the exception of Pluto, which has a diameter half that of earth, they are many times earth-size but are much lighter for their size than either earth or Mars. A typical sample of Saturn would actually float on water.

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