MARS is the famous “red planet”, and is not surprisingly named after the Roman god of war. The fourth planet from the sun, it can approach the third planet, Earth, as closely as 54.5 million kilometres (33.9 million miles). Of course, this is still a huge distance, so it’s only recently that a number of probes have been sent there, but this is still easier than most other planets. It also makes it one of the brightest objects in the night sky, surpassed only by the Moon, Venus and sometimes Jupiter.

Another factor makes Martian probes even more attractive to secular scientists. While Venus can approach closer to earth—42 million km (26 million miles)—it is a hellhole, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead, and an atmosphere 90 times denser than ours that’s mostly carbon dioxide and clouds made of sulfuric acid. By contrast, many hope that Mars is hospitable to life.

These hopes have not been realized, and are not likely to be. Mars is a dry, frigid world—yet recent discoveries point to huge floods in the past.

What is Mars like?

Mars is only about half the diameter of Earth, and one tenth the mass. In fact, it is roughly intermediate in size between the earth and our moon. Mars itself has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, but they are much tinier than our moon and orbit much closer. Phobos is only 27 km long and orbits just over 9,000 km from Mars, Deimos is even smaller at 15 km long, but orbits over 23,000 km away. Because they are so small they are irregularly shaped—with insufficient gravity to stabilize into a roughly spherical shape.

Mars has the distinction of having the largest volcano in the solar system: Olympus Mons, 27 km high—three times the elevation of Mount Everest. Being a shallow-sloping shield volcano, it is enormously wide, 550 km (342 miles). In fact, Mt Everest could fit in its crater!…

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