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Mars Altitudes

Mars Altitudes

Pictured to the left is an altitude map of Mars - the front is to the left and the back is to the right. These two maps were constructed from millions of individual elevation measurements made by the Mars Global Surveyor. Color is used to indicate elevations - see the altitude indicator at the bottom of the maps. Red, pink and white indicate very high altitudes on the left map. While blue and purple indicate low and very low altitudes on the right map.

The highest point is the Olympus Mons which is located at the very small white circle in the upper left yellow/green area next to the blue. The three white circles in the red and pink zone, the Tharsis area, are the three large volcanoes - Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons, which are known as the Tharsis Montes. The red and pink area is an uplifted continent the size of North America whose average height is about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).

The light blue area on the upper right of the hemisphere to the right is a very large low level plain area. The dark purple region in the lower left is the Hellas basin, which is the lowest elevation on Mars.  Top

A Closer Look At Valles Marineris Canyon

Valles Marineris Up Close

The Red Planet is home to both the highest mountain and the deepest, longest valley in the solar system. The mountain Olympus Mons is roughly 17 miles high, about three times as tall as Mount Everest.

The Valles Marineris system of valleys reaches as deep as 6 miles and runs east-west for roughly 2,500 miles, about one-fifth of the distance around Mars and about the width of the United States.  Top

Mars is much smaller than the Earth.

Mars Size

Mars has a diameter of just over 50% of the diameter of Earth. However, the land mass of Mars and Earth is about the same. Despite Mars being just 15% the volume and 10% the mass of Earth, it actually has a similar "landmass" area because water covers about 70% of Earth’s surface and very little of Mars.

The surface gravity of Mars is about 38% the gravity found on Earth. This means that on Mars you can in theory jump about 3 times higher than you could on Earth.  Top

Jezero Crater - Location of Mars 2020 Rover Landing


After a lengthy selection process, NASA chose Jezero Crater (marked in red on the map to the left) in the northern hemisphere as the landing site for the Mars 2020 Rover, now called the Perseverance.

The announcement came November 2019 after a five-year selection process that considered over 60 candidate locations scattered across Mars.

As with every landing selection, there's an ongoing tension between choosing a safe location for landing versus a location that is scientifically rewarding to visit in the first place.

The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years. This location might answer some important questions about planetary evolution and geology.  Top

2020 Rover Helicopter

2020 Helicopter

For the 2020 Mars rover mission, NASA is adding a very small helicopter drone to the basic rover. More ground can be scouted faster with the use of an aerial device. The total helicopter weighs only only 4 pounds. See the artist illustration to the left.

The vehicle is solar powered and is designed to fly only three minutes at a time while covering about a third of a mile. The heart of the drone is a little cube roughly the size of a tissue box that weighs 2.2 pounds and comes with a wide-angle camera.

The helicopter allows NASA to scout more of the terrain faster. But since the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, flying presents its own set of challenges. The helicopter features a counter-rotating set of blades that measure 3.6 feet from tip to tip. They spin at 3,000 rpm which is about ten times faster than a normal helicopter.  Top

Mars Atmosphere

Mars Atmosphere

The climate of Mars comes from a variety of factors, including its ice caps, water vapor and dust storms. The atmosphere of Mars is about 100 times thinner than Earth's, and it is 95 percent carbon dioxide. See the reddish atmosphere bar beneath the black sky and above the tan dust to the left. According to NASA the breakdown of the atmosphere is:

In periods older than 3.5 billion years, Mars had a thick enough atmosphere for water to run on its surface. However, for reasons that are still not thoroughly understood, the Martian atmosphere thinned. The leading theory is that Mars' light gravity, coupled with its lack of a global magnetic field, left the atmosphere vulnerable to pressure from the solar wind (the constant stream of particles coming from the sun). Over millions of years, the sun's pressure stripped the lighter molecules from the atmosphere, thinning it out. The atmosphere of Mars is roughly 100 times thinner than the Earth's, but it is still thick enough to support weather, clouds and winds.  Top

Mars Has Extremely Massive Windstorms

Mars Dust Storm

Most of the winds measured on Mars are only a few miles per hour. However, Mars is capable of great windstorms that can cover the entire planet. The dust storms on Mars are the largest in our entire solar system.

Pictured to the left is a huge dust storm that engulfed the whole planet and was recorded by the Opportunity Rover in June, 2018. Such high winds can strip the surface of some of its loose, fine dust, and dirt leaving the rock beneath exposed. Much of the material stripped out of the Martian canyons has been dumped in extensive dune fields mostly at higher latitudes.

Recent rovers found that each sunny afternoon the Mars atmosphere becomes turbulent as heat rises off the surface. This turbulence generates dust devils, which play a major role in lifting fine dust into the atmosphere. It is this fine dust that coats almost all of the Mars surface. This gives Mars its distinctive red color, which is due to the rock and dust being rich in iron.  Top

Ground Water Frost

Ground Water Frost

The image to the left is "surface water frost" photographed by the Viking 2 at its landing site during the late winter of 1976. The winter air temperatures close to the ground were about –100°C measured by the Viking 2.

A point was made by NASA about saying “water frost” because at some locations on Mars it gets cold enough for "carbon dioxide frost" (dry ice no water) to freeze out of the atmosphere onto the ground as well.

The Viking 2 landing spot was in the north eastern part of the planet. Winters in that part of Mars last about a year of Earth time because the Mars rotation around the sun is approximately two Earth years.  Top

Mars Sand Dunes

Mars Sand Dunes

Martian sand dunes are not like sand movements here on Earth. See the sand dune photo to the left. Scientists tracked the movement of nearly 500 individual dunes, all using data gathered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. By studying the movement of all that sand, the researchers were able to compare the interaction between wind and sand on the Red Planet with the same interaction on Earth.

"On Mars, there simply is not enough wind energy to move a substantial amount of material around on the surface," lead author Matthew Chojnacki, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, said. "It might take two years on Mars to see the same movement you would typically see in a season on Earth."

By selecting pairs of images that showed the same patch of ground years apart, the team was able to measure how fast each dune was moving. That analysis suggests that Martian sand dunes move at a fraction of the speed of those found on Earth - which makes sense given how much thinner the atmosphere is on the Red Planet.  Top

Mars Meteorites Found On Earth

Mars Meteorite

Spacecraft have not yet returned martian samples to Earth for analysis. Therefore it is with great interest that scientists have discovered samples of Martian material already here on Earth. The fragment of basalt shown at the left was ejected from Mars by a crater impact and eventually arrived on Earth’s surface and then to NASA.

There have been over 61,000 meteorites that have been found on Earth, and 224 have been identified as Martian as of January 2019. These meteorites are thought to be from Mars because they have compositions that are similar to rocks and atmosphere gases analyzed by spacecraft on Mars.

In October 2013, NASA confirmed, based on analysis of argon in the Martian atmosphere by the Curiosity rover, that certain meteorites found on Earth thought to be from Mars were indeed from Mars. On January 3, 2013, NASA reported that a meteorite, nicknamed "Black Beauty" found in 2011 in the Sahara desert, was determined to be from Mars and found to contain ten times the water of other Mars meteorites found on Earth.