Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System after Mercury.
Mars made its closest approach to Earth and maximum apparent brightness in nearly 60,000 years, 55,758,006 km (0.372719 AU), magnitude −2.88, on 27 August 2003 at 9:51:13 UT. There have been a few rovers on Mars, including Spirit and Opportunity, whose missions began in the 2000s, and Curiosity, whose mission began in the 2010s.
Mars is a terrestrial planet that consists of minerals containing silicon and oxygen, metals, and other elements that typically make up rock. Mars has two permanent polar ice caps. The highest point on the planet is Olympus Mons.
Given that it is a planet, the geography of Mars varies considerably. However, the dichotomy of Martian topography is striking: northern plains flattened by lava flows contrast with the southern highlands, pitted and cratered by ancient impacts. The surface of Mars as seen from Earth is consequently divided into two kinds of areas, with differing albedo. The paler plains covered with dust and sand rich in reddish iron oxides were once thought of as Martian 'continents' and given names like Arabia Terra (land of Arabia) or Amazonis Planitia (Amazonian plain). The dark features were thought to be seas, hence their names Mare Erythraeum, Mare Sirenum and Aurorae Sinus. The largest dark feature seen from Earth is Syrtis Major Planum.
The shield volcano, Olympus Mons (Mount Olympus), rises 22 km above the surrounding volcanic plains, and is the highest known mountain on any planet in the solar system. It is in a vast upland region called Tharsis, which contains several large volcanos. See list of mountains on Mars. The Tharsis region of Mars also has the solar system's largest canyon system, Valles Marineris or the Mariner Valley, which is 4,000 km long and 7 km deep. Mars is also scarred by countless impact craters. The largest of these is the Hellas impact basin. See list of craters on Mars.
Mars has two permanent polar ice caps, the northern one located at Planum Boreum and the southern one at Planum Australe.
The difference between Mars' highest and lowest points is nearly 30 km (from the top of Olympus Mons at an altitude of 21.2 km to the bottom of the Hellas impact basin at an altitude of 8.2 km below the datum). In comparison, the difference between Earth's highest and lowest points (Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench) is only 19.7 km. Combined with the planets' different radii, this means Mars is nearly three times "rougher" than Earth.
The Mars system consists of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. Both moons were discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall.
Phobos orbits 6,000 km (3,700 mi) from the Martian surface, closer to its primary body than any other known planetary moon. It is so close that it orbits Mars much faster than Mars rotates, and completes an orbit in just 7 hours and 39 minutes. As a result, from the surface of Mars it appears to rise in the west, move across the sky in 4 hours and 15 minutes or less, and set in the east, twice each Martian day.
Deimos regularly passes in front of the Sun as seen from Mars. It is too small to cause a total eclipse, appearing only as a small black dot moving across the Sun. Its angular diameter is only about 2.5 times the angular diameter of Venus during a transit of Venus from Earth. On 4 March 2004 a transit of Deimos was photographed by Mars rover Opportunity, and on 13 March 2004 a transit was photographed by Mars rover Spirit.
- Carr, M.H., 2006, The Surface of Mars, Cambridge, 307 p.