Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second smallest planet in the Solar System. Named after the Roman god of war, it is often described as the "Red Planet", as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. 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. The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the second highest known mountain within the Solar System (the tallest on a planet), and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small and irregularly shaped. These may be captured asteroids, similar to 5261 Eureka, a Martian trojan asteroid.

Until the first successful flyby of Mars occurred in 1965 by Mariner 4, many speculated about the presence of 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 appeared to be seas and continents; long, dark striations were interpreted by some as irrigation channels for liquid water. These straight line features were later explained as optical illusions, though geological evidence gathered by unmanned missions suggest that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface. In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles and at mid-latitudes. The Mars rover Spirit sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules in March 2007. The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.

Mars is currently host to five functioning spacecraft: three in orbit—the Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and two on the surface—Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity. Defunct spacecraft on the surface include MER-A Spirit, and several other inert landers and rovers, both successful and unsuccessful, such as the Phoenix lander, which completed its mission in 2008. Observations by NASA's now-defunct Mars Global Surveyor show evidence that parts of the southern polar ice cap have been receding. Observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars.

Mars can easily be seen from Earth with the naked eye. Its apparent magnitude reaches −3.0, which is surpassed only by Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and the Sun. Optical ground-based telescopes are typically limited to resolving features about 300 km (186 miles) across when Earth and Mars are closest, because of Earth's atmosphere.

Read more about Mars:  Physical Characteristics, Orbit and Rotation, Search For Life, Habitability, Exploration Missions, Astronomy On Mars, Viewing, Historical Observations, In Culture, Mars Surface Details, Moons

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Famous quotes containing the word mars:

    The sword’s a cross; thereon He died:
    On breast of Mars the goddess sighed.
    William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

    What makes the United States government, on the whole, more tolerable—I mean for us lucky white men—is the fact that there is so much less of government with us.... But in Canada you are reminded of the government every day. It parades itself before you. It is not content to be the servant, but will be the master; and every day it goes out to the Plains of Abraham or to the Champs de Mars and exhibits itself and toots.
    Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

    It makes us, or it mars us, think on that,
    And fix most firm thy resolution.
    William Shakespeare (1564–1616)