For eons, skywatchers have been fascinated by the pale red dot that not only unpredictably moves backward in the night sky but also shines a compelling blood-red. Its color, indeed, is one of the first features we notice about Mars. It seizes our attention, and its compelling ambiguity has evoked a deep visceral reaction from the nomad in ancient savannas to modern astronomers.

The ancient astronomer may be satisfied to know that, in fact, Mars is literally blood-red: the same chemical reaction that occurs in the iron in Mars’ soil is the same as the same chemical reaction that occurs in the hemoglobin molecule. Mars, is, quite literally, blood red. Even with our cutting-edge technology and science, Mars still bewitches and amazes us as seen with these five surprising facts about Mars.

Facts about Mars: Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System after Mercury. Scientists think the magnetosphere of Mars collapsed around 3.7 billion years ago, and it eventually lost its atmosphere. Now, Mars has a very thin atmosphere: the atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface averages 600 pascals (0.087 psi; 6.0 mbar), about only 0.6% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure of 101.3 kilopascals (14.69 psi; 1.013 bar).

1. Mars Has the Coolest Historical Names

Like a badge of blood traveling across the night sky, Mars has long been associated with gods of war and warrior-sounding names. Its reddish cast likely provoked a strong emotional response in the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and other civilizations where war was often a way of life, and red was symbolic of that tenuous boundary of life and death.

Indeed, many ancient people believed Mars’ reddish color came from actual blood on the planet. The Egyptians gave Mars its first recorded name: Har dècher (“The red one”). The Babylonians called it Nergal (“Star of death”) because of its ominous aura, and in India, the red planet was called Angakra, “the burning coal.” The Greeks and Romans named the planet after their respective gods of war, Ares and Mars. The word Mars is also related to other military-themed terms, such as March (when spring war campaigns usually began in Rome) and martial. The reddish cast of Mars has earned the planet a compelling–if bloody-place in history.

Facts about Mars: Ares (Mars), God of War
Facts about Mars: Ares is the Greek god of war. He is one of the Twelve Olympians, the son of Zeus and Hera. During the Hellenization of Latin literature, the myths of Ares were reinterpreted by Roman writers under the name of Mars. The red planet was named after this god of war. According to Roman myth, Mars rode on a chariot pulled by two horses named Phobos and Deimos (meaning fear and panic). The two small moons of Mars are named after these two mythical horses.

2. There is Fun Mars etymology in the hit 2015 movie, The Martian

The 2015 movie The Martian includes some fun Mars etymology. For example, the famous actor Matt Damon plays a character named Mark. “Mark” is actually the English version of the Latin name Marcus, which means Mars. Additionally, the name of the mission in the movie is named Ares 3, which is a homage to the Greek god of war Ares, whose Roman name is Mars. While the program was ultimately canceled in 2010 in real life, NASA was developing launch vehicles called Ares I and Ares V for the cargo and crew of the Constellation Program.

The Martian
Facts about Mars: The Martian

3. Mars Has Stunning Blue Sunsets

Earth has breathtaking sunrises and sunsets in bouquets of pink, purple, and gold. But Mars, like its namesake, refuses to be outdone by any planet. The red planet boasts sunsets that are truly and stunningly blue. Mars’ blue sunset is due to its much thinner atmosphere than Earth. It also has a dry, dusty surface, and weaker surface gravity so its atmosphere is often filled with fine particles of dust. The dust is just the right size so that the blue light penetrates the atmosphere more clearly and brilliantly.

Facts about Mars: sunset
Facts about Mars: NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover recorded this view of the sun setting at the close of the mission’s 956th Martian day, or sol (April 15, 2015), from the rover’s location in Gale Crater. This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity Mars rover. Image: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory website.

4. Mars Has the Largest Dust Storms in the Solar System

Ancient astronomers, sci-fi writers, and philosophers alike have dreamed what it would be like to live on Mars. Many imagine, quite rightly that they would need to contend with unearthly dust storms. Perhaps appropriately matching its angry hue, Mars has the largest dust storms in the entire solar system. These massive events can last for weeks and can even cover the entire planet.

However, even the largest storms could not strand an astronaut on Mars or rip apart major technological equipment. The strongest the winds can get is about 60 miles per hour, which is less than half the speed of hurricane-force winds on Earth. Additionally, because Mars’ atmosphere pressure is significantly less than Earth’s, while the dust storms can be larger, they just don’t have the same intensity. They do make for an amazing movie prop, though.

Facts about Mars: a dust storm
Facts about Mars: Mars has the largest dust storms in the Solar System

5. Mars Contains The Grand Canyon of the Solar System

If the name “The Labyrinth of the Night” sounds dramatic, it’s because it describes one of the hurricane-force landscapes on Mars–and, in fact, in the entire solar system: a vast and maze-like labyrinth of valleys, fractures, and plateau that lies on the western edge of Valles Marineris. Known as the Grand Canyon of the Solar System, the Noctis Labyrinthus sprawls 750 miles (1,207 km) across the Red Planet, which is roughly the equivalent length of the river Rhine from its source in the Alps to the North Sea. It is also home to the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons. Scientists believe that intense volcanic and tectonic activity in Mars’ past created this imposing landscape.

Valles Marineris, the grand valley extends over 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) long, spans as much as 600 kilometers (373 miles) across, and delves as much as 8 kilometers (26,247 feet) deep. By comparison, the Earth’s Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA is 800 kilometers (497 miles) long, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) across, and 1.8 kilometers (5,905 feet) deep.

Mars - Valles Marineris Hemisphere Enhanced
Facts about Mars – Valles Marineris: The Grand Canyon of Mars. Photo: NASA

One of the night’s sky unblinking wanderers, Mars has always stood out from the other planets. It stands out not only in appearance but also because Mars is the most likely to be habitable. Mars could present an opportunity for humans to carry forward humanity farther into space, into the future. While we dream of life on Mars, the first life forms on Mars might just be us.

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