To the Greeks it was the "Red Planet," the planet of the god of War, Ares. Second only in brightness to Venus, Mars played a prominent role in the night skies of ancient people across the world. It made its way into their astronomy, their religion, their lives.
Today, though the religious aspect has mostly disappeared, Mars still draws attention. It's a common target for many astronomers, amateur and professional. Some scientists believe that it's possible that primitive currently exists or did exist on Mars. In the near future, Mars will serve as the next step in our manned exploration of space.
Mars is the first planet beyond the Earth. It's only about one quarter the diameter of Earth and one tenth Earth's mass. At its closest pass to Earth it is brighter than all other objects in the sky other than the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. The reddish tint of its soil has lead to its nickname, the "Red Planet."
A Martian year is equal to 779.9 Earth days and its day is about 37 minutes longer than Earth's. Mars has a very thin, mainly carbon dioxide atmosphere and water frozen in polar ice caps.
The rugged Martian terrain consists of craters, valleys, plains, volcanoes, and dried river beds. Many of these features would dwarf those on Earth. For example, the volcano on Olympus Mons soars 25 km above the surface. By comparison Mount Everest is less than 9 km high.
Tremendous dust storms, over 1,000 km in diameter, pound the surface and obscure visibility.
There are tiny two moons, Phobos and Demios, which orbit Mars. Because of the moons' small sizes and irregular shapes some people believe they are not native, but rather captured asteroids.
Detailed observation of Mars began in the early 1700s when the first maps of Mars were drawn. Detail was added over the next 150 years as telescopes were improved.
In 1877 Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli reported "canali" on the surface of Mars. A mistranslation to canals, rather than channels, caused quite a stir and had a significant, long term impact on the science of astronomy (see Canals on Mars).
The next great leap in the our knowledge of Mars came during the space-race between the USSR and USA. From 1960 to the present day both countries sent unmanned probes and landers to Mars to gather pictures, atmospheric readings, information about soil samples, and more (see Exploration for rundown on the probes). The USA's Mariner and Viking probes have returned thousands of stunning pictures of the Martian terrain.
(See Links page for sites where you can view or download these photos)
More unmanned probes are planned, however the next big step will eventually be a manned voyage. This will be our first trip to another planet. A "giant-giant leap" into space. When this will happen is anyone's guess. But it will and it will be exciting.