The Red Planet

This year, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was launched to discover if there is life on Mars. What will they find? In anticipation of the Oribiter’s arrival in October (and the article in Maybe’s upcoming print issue), here are some facts about the Red Planet.

As the fourth planet in the solar system, Mars has a longer year than Earth, taking 687 days to orbit the sun. Interestingly, its days are only 40 minutes longer than ours, but if humans ever get to set foot on Mars, they are unlikely to feel at home there.

Mars is a perishingly cold, dry, barren planet with a thin atmosphere that is 95% carbon dioxide, meaning that we would find the air impossible to breathe. Its distinctive reddish colour is caused by the rust that covers its surface. By day the sky is also red, while the sunsets are blue – an extraordinary sight that was captured on the camera of NASA’s Curiosity Rover.

If you stood on the dusty plains of Mars and looked into the night sky, you would see two moons: Phobos and Deimos. Scientists believe that within the next 20-40 million years, Phobos will be torn apart by gravitational forces, leaving a ring like the rings of Saturn.

Although Mars is the second smallest planet in the solar system, it is home to its tallest mountain: Olympus Mons, a volcano three times higher than Everest. The lava flows around it are so recent that scientists think it may still be active.

The elliptical orbit of Mars results in extreme seasonal change. Its dust storms are the largest in the solar system, sometimes lasting for months and engulfing the entire planet.

The average temperature of Mars is a freezing -60 degrees C, but this plunges to -125 degrees C during winter at the poles (the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was -89.2 degrees C in Antarctica 1983). Although there is plenty of water on Mars, it is frozen solid.

Clearly, Mars is not a hospitable place. Is it possible that we could settle there? So far, human colonies on Mars remain in the realm of science fiction, but missions like the one launched this year will help us understand more about this intriguing world.

Louisa Watson