Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and is commonly referred to as the Red Planet. The rocks, soil and sky have a red or pink hue. The distinct red color was observed by stargazers throughout history. It was given its name by the Romans in honor of their god of war. Other civilizations have had similar names. The ancient Egyptians named the planet Her Descher meaning the red one.
Before space exploration, Mars was considered the best candidate for harboring extraterrestrial life. Astronomers thought they saw straight lines crisscrossing its surface. This led to the popular belief that irrigation canals on the planet had been constructed by intelligent beings. In 1938, when Orson Welles broadcasted a radio drama based on the science fiction classic War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, enough people believed in the tale of invading Martians to cause a near panic.
Another reason for scientists to expect life on Mars had to do with the apparent seasonal color changes on the planet’s surface. This phenomenon led to speculation that conditions might support a bloom of Martian vegetation during the warmer months and cause plant life to become dormant during colder periods.
In July of 1965, Mariner 4, transmitted 22 close-up pictures of Mars. All that was revealed was a surface containing many craters and naturally occurring channels but no evidence of artificial canals or flowing water. Finally, in July and September 1976, Viking Landers 1 and 2 touched down on the surface of Mars. The three biology experiments aboard the landers discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, but provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in the soil near the landing sites. According to mission biologists, Mars is self-sterilizing. They believe the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry prevent the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil. The question of life on Mars at some time in the distant past remains open.
Other instruments found no sign of organic chemistry at either landing site, but they did provide a precise and definitive analysis of the composition of the Martian atmosphere and found previously undetected trace elements.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. The planet is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. It is also referred to as the "Red Planet" because of its reddish appearance, due to iron oxideprevalent on its surface. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the volcanoes, valleys, deserts and polar ice caps of Earth. Unlike the Earth, Mars is now a geologically inactive planet with no tectonic activity. It is the site of Olympus Mons, the highest known mountain in the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, the largest canyon. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere may be a giant impact feature covering 40% of the planet.Mars’ rotational period and seasonal cycles are likewise similar to those of Earth.
Until the first flyby of Mars by Mariner 4 in 1965, many speculated that there might be liquid water on the planet’s surface. This was based on observed periodic variations in light and dark patches, particularly in the polar latitudes, which looked like seas and continents, while long, dark striations were interpreted by some as irrigation channels for liquid water. These straight line features were later explained as optical illusions. Still, of all the planets in the Solar System other than Earth, Mars is the most likely to harbor liquid water, and thus may contain life.Geological evidence gathered by unmanned missions suggests that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface, while small geyser-like water flows may have occurred during the past decade.In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the polesand at mid-latitudes (November 2008).The Phoenix Mars Lander directly sampled water ice in shallow martian soil on July 31, 2008.