Mars information for kids
Get excited about Mars with these facts and recent discoveries about the most talked-about planet in our Solar System.
Photo Credit: Heidi Kristensen
By Jennifer Gomoll
You may have heard about the planet Mars in the news recently. That’s because in 2004, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars, and have been sending us pictures and other new data ever since. Although people have known about the “red planet” since prehistory, gazed at it with telescopes in the 1880s, and sent the first spacecraft to study it in 1965, there has never been a more exciting time to study Mars than right now.
Here’s the lowdown on the fourth planet in our solar system: Mars orbits the sun at a distance of about 228 million kilometers (km). The diameter of Mars is only 6,794 km (that’s about half of Earth’s diameter). Mars has only about a tenth of Earth’s mass, and a third of Earth’s force of gravity. A day on Mars is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day, and a year takes 687 Earth days (that’s nearly two Earth years!) Because of its bright red appearance, Mars is named after the Roman god of war. Its two tiny moons, Phobos (11km in diameter) and Deimos (6km), are thought to have been asteroids that were drawn into orbit by Mars’ gravitational pull.
In the 19th century, people using telescopes thought they could see canals on Mars, leading many to wonder if there could be aliens or “Martians” living there. We now know these canals were only an illusion, or trick of the eye. A photograph of a hilly area that looks like a human face (called the Face of Mars) got people talking again in the late 20th century, but the Face, too, is now said to be only an illusion caused by light and shadow.
So is there really no life on Mars? We don’t know, but we’re hoping to find out! The key is figuring out whether Mars has ever had water in liquid form, because where there’s water, there’s usually life. New pictures show areas that have been eroded, that is, worn down at some time by a liquid. There appear to have once been flood areas and river systems on Mars, and very recently, what scientists think is a frozen sea has been discovered. Perhaps evidence of microscopic life forms will be found in these areas!
Some believe that people may travel to and live on Mars one day. Mars is more like Earth than any other planet: it has volcanoes, polar ice caps, weather seasons, and clouds, as Earth does. Although this space travel is an exciting idea, conditions on Mars are harsh. Temperatures vary greatly from summer to winter because of Mars’ elliptical (oval, not circular) orbit around the sun, but on average, it’s a bone-chilling -81 degrees Fahrenheit. We couldn’t breathe in Mars’ atmosphere; it is 95.3% carbon dioxide! (The other gases are: nitrogen, 2.7%; argon, 1.6%; oxygen, 0.15%; and water vapor, 0.93%.) Scientists are talking about visiting Mars to do research that machines cannot; perhaps this will happen in our lifetime!
Have you ever seen Mars in the night sky? Although it can sometimes be seen from Earth, it looks like a tiny red dot. With a good telescope and filters, you may be able to see the polar ice caps, clouds, and features such as the Eye of Mars (Lacus Solis). A good time to view Mars is during opposition (that’s when Earth is lined up between the Sun and Mars).
If you want to see more, look for information on Mars in newspapers and on the internet. With the largest volcano in the Solar System, huge mountains and canyons, and dust devils kicking up on the ground, there are so many interesting things to look at on Mars. New images are coming in all the time, as spacecraft collect information and take pictures from Mars’ surface and sky. Check them out!
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