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Spotlight on Mars

As the Red Planet Mars is becoming more prominent in our skies, several missions are making their way across the gulf of space to explore. It’s an exciting time for Martian science! Let’s take a look at how our next door neighbour has captured the imaginations of the human race.

Mars in the Solar System

Although not the closest planet to Earth, Mars has often held the attention of planetary scientists and science fiction writers alike. It shines with a red light in the sky, visible even with the naked eye. Closer pictures reveal a reddish-brown surface, caused by an abundance of iron oxide (also known as rust).

Mars 2003 Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Mars is home to some of the largest landscape features that we know of. Its largest volcano, Olympus Mons, towers 16 miles (25km) above the surface. To put that in perspective, it’s 2.5x bigger than Mauna Loa, the tallest volcano on Earth, making it the biggest volcano in the solar system! It wouldn’t be too difficult to climb though; at 374 miles wide, it’s slopes aren’t much steeper than a wheelchair ramp. However, you’d be in for a long walk; that’s about the size of Arizona!

Exploring Mars

There have been countless missions and projects exploring Mars over the years. In July 2020, 3 separate countries launched large scale missions which are all currently on their way to the planet: the United States of America, China and the United Arab Emirates. Named Perseverance, Tianwen 1 and Hope respectively, each of these missions aims to further what we know about Mars and whether it once had life.

Scientists have been looking for signs of life on Mars for decades. It’s extremely unlikely that any still exists; Mars has long been without the atmosphere that created the right conditions. However, since we know that Mars once had the right conditions for life, it’s possible that some form of it existed long ago.

NASA’s Curioisity rover is currently looking for these signs of life, and the Perseverance rover will do the same. The new rover will even prep soil samples for possible return to Earth. The Mars Helicopter is hitching a ride with Perseverance, a tech demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tianwen 1 (meaning ‘questions to heaven’ or ‘questioning the heavens’) consists of both an orbiter and a rover. It aims to look for subterreanean water, using a radar that could detect pockets of water beneath the surface. This is first time water has been searched for from the surface of Mars instead of from orbit!

Tianwen 1. Credit: CNSA

The Hope Mars mission represents an important milestone for the UAE, as the first interplanetary satellite (and first planetary science mission!) by the country. Put together in just 6 years, the Hope mission is a weather satellite that will answer questions about Mars’ climate and atmosphere.

Hope. Credit: UAE Space Agency

It’s a super exciting time for Mars, so keep an eye out for it in the coming months! As always, our sky notes can help you with any observing you want to do. When you see that red dot in the sky, just think about all the amazing things we can discover about it.

Sources:, NASA, The Planetary Society, (2)