Exploring the Solar System: Mars


Of all the planets in the Solar System, to my mind, this place rocks! Why do I say that? I’ve always wanted to go there, ever since I was a kid and played “Going to Mars” with my sibs and cousins out in a field by our house. I hadn’t even read any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books at that time, I just knew it had to be an interesting place!

Fictional Mars was peopled with all manner of strange beings — princesses, heroes, alien beings called Thoats, and they all lived a sort of adventurous life among the canyons and jungles of the imaginary surface of the Red Planet.

All those beings began to dissolve into the fictional plane when telescopes got powerful enough to give us a view of Mars that was more like the Arizona desert than the jungles of Africa. When the first spacecraft missions visited the planet beginning in the 1960s, the world of thoats and princesses vanished back to the bookshelves.

Today, we know Mars is a dry and dusty desert planet, with the remains of ancient lakes and streambeds showing that water once existed on the surface, and two polar caps of water and carbon dioxide ice. Like Earth, it has volcanoes — but its calderas have been sleeping for millennia. It has an atmosphere not much thicker than the Earth’s stratosphere, and its air is mostly carbon dioxide — the same waste product we breathe out as we breathe in oxygen. The surface is split by canyons, pockmarked by impact craters, and covered with fine, wind-blown dust and sand.

Think we’ll ever get to explore this planet in person? For more than thirty years, people have made mission plans to take humans to the Red Planet. The “Case for Mars” meetings (which were held beginning in the early 1980s and have been repeated every few years at the University of Colorado) included many sessions on ways to get to Mars, surviving on its surface, and the many scientific studies that explorers could do. Today the Mars Society and others carry on the legacy of planning — with an eventual goal of putting people on the Red Planet sometime in the next decade (or sooner).

So why do I think this seemingly dead planet rocks? Because of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars is the most like Earth — and offers the best chances for actual human exploration and eventual habitation. It fires our imagination and gives us a place to go next. Understanding how this planet came to be the way it is helps us learn more about the evolution of the solar system as a whole, and our own home planet in particular. Besides, it’s just plain darned cool!

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