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Map of Mars: The Geology of the Red Planet



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A Map of Mars: The Geology of the Red Planet

Mapping Mars: The Geology of the Red Planet

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For centuries, Mars has been mythically defined by its characteristic red appearance.

In Babylonian astronomy, Mars was named after Nergal, the deity of fire, war, and destruction. In Chinese and Japanese texts, the planet was known as 火星, the fire star.

Although this unique reddish hue has been a key defining characteristic of Mars in culture for centuries, today we now know that it’s the iron oxide soil of the Martian landscape that makes it the “Red Planet” – and that there is much more to Mars than its color upon closer observation.

Above, today’s map, posted and created by Reddit user /hellofromthemoon, brings together the data from centuries of observation and the numerous missions to the Red Planet to map out its geology on a grand scale.

A Red Dot in the Sky

Egyptian astronomers first observed the planet Mars four thousand years ago and named it “Horus-the-red.” Babylonian astronomers marked its course through the night sky to track the passage of time. But it was not until 1610, when Galileo Galilei witnessed Mars with his own eyes through a telescope, that Mars was revealed as a whole other world.

Over the centuries with improving technology, a succession of astronomers observed and crudely mapped out everything from polar ice caps to yellow clouds, and white and dark spots denoting varying elevations across the Martian surface. Some of the earliest maps of Mars date to 1831. But there is only so much you can accurately observe from the surface of the Earth.

On July 14, 1965, NASA successfully received the first up-close images of Mars from the Mariner 4 spacecraft, passing within 9,844 kilometers (6,117 miles) of Mars’ surface. Mariner 4 captured the image of a large ancient crater and confirmed the existence of a thin atmosphere composed largely of carbon dioxide.

Since then, four space agencies have successfully made it to Mars: NASA, the former Soviet Union space program, the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. From orbital satellites to surface exploration with robots, each successful mission has brought back important data to develop an evolving picture of the planet.

Here is a complete list of both the successful and failed missions to Mars.

Martian Geology

On Mars, we see volcanoes, canyons, and impact basins much like the ones on Earth. The yellows scattered across the map indicate meteor impacts of varying size while the swaths of red indicate volcanoes and their associated lava flows. The varying colors of brown indicate the cratered highlands and midlands that make up most of the southern hemisphere.

The planet appears asymmetric. Most of the southern hemisphere is heavily cratered and resembles the moon’s highlands. In contrast, the northern hemisphere is sparsely cratered and has many large volcanoes.

Mars is approximately one-half the diameter of the Earth, but both planets have the same amount of dry land. This is because the current surface of Mars has no liquid water.

Mars and Earth are very different planets when it comes to temperature, size, and atmosphere, but geologic processes on the two planets are eerily similar. The sheer size of some landforms on Mars would shadow over similar features on Earth because of the lack of water erosion. This lack of erosion has preserved billion year-old geologic features.

The tallest mountain on Mars and in the solar system is Olympus Mons, and it is two and a half times taller than Mt. Everest. A Martian canyon system, called Valles Marineris, is the length of the entire continental United States and three times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Mars Colony: Location, Location, Location

The first step to building a colony is to figure out where the best chance of survival is. For Mars, some researchers have identified the planet’s poles, which contain millennia-old ice deposits. These are thought to contain large amounts of ice, which mars settlers could extract and turn into liquid water.

The poles also host other natural resources, such as carbon dioxide, iron, aluminum, silicon and sulfur, which could be used to make glass, brick and plastic. Furthermore, the planet’s atmosphere contains enough hydrogen and methanol for fuel.

Closing the Distance

The map above represents the culmination of centuries of work which we are lucky enough to view here on a computer, conveniently online for us to appreciate and wonder what life’s like on the surface of Mars.

Who knows what more exploration will reveal.

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A Visual Introduction to the Dwarf Planets in our Solar System

Since dwarf planets started being classified in 2005, nine have been recognized. Here we visually introduce the dwarf planets in our solar system.



A Visual Introduction to the Dwarf Planets in our Solar System

Pluto and the Introduction of Dwarf Planets

Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has been a bit of a puzzle.

For starters, not only is Pluto smaller than any other planet in the solar system, but it’s also smaller than Earth’s moon. It also has an extremely low gravitational pull at only 0.07 times the mass of the objects in its orbit, which is just a fraction of the Moon’s own strength.

At the same time, Pluto’s surface resembles that of terrestrial planets such as Mars, Venus or the Earth, yet its nearest neighbors are the gaseous Jovian planets such as Uranus or Neptune. In fact, Pluto’s orbit is so erratic that it led many scientists to initially believe that it originated elsewhere in space and the Sun’s gravity pulled it in.

These qualities have challenged the scientific view of Pluto’s status as a planet for years. It wasn’t until the discovery of Eris in 2005, one of many increasingly identified trans-Neptunian objects (objects beyond the planet Neptune), that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined criteria for classifying planets.

With Eris and other trans-Neptunian objects sharing similar characteristics with Pluto, the definition for dwarf planets was created, and Pluto got downgraded in 2006.

So what are dwarf planets, how do they differ from “true” planets and what are their characteristics?

The History of Dwarf Planets

A dwarf planet is a celestial body that almost meets the definition of a “true” planet. According to the IAU, which sets definitions for planetary science, a planet must:

  1. Orbit the Sun.
  2. Have enough mass to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium and assume a nearly round shape.
  3. Dominate its orbit and not share it with other objects.

Dwarf planets, along with not being moons or satellites, fail to clear the neighborhoods around their orbits. This is the primary reason why Pluto lost its status: because it shares part of its orbit with the Kuiper belt, a dense region of icy space bodies.

Based on this definition, the IAU has recognized five dwarf planets: Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, and Ceres. There are four more planetary objects*, namely Orcus, Sedna, Gonggong and Quaoar, that the majority of the scientific community recognize as dwarf planets.

Six more could be recognized in the coming years, and as many as 200 or more are hypothesized to exist in the Outer Solar System in the aforementioned Kuiper belt.

Ceres is the earliest known and smallest of the current category of dwarf planets. Previously classified as an asteroid in 1801, it was confirmed to be a dwarf planet in 2006. Ceres lies between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt, and it is the only dwarf planet that orbits closest to Earth.

Here is a brief introduction to the most recognized dwarf planets:

NameRegion of the
Solar System
Orbital period
(in years)
Mean orbital
speed (km/s)
relative to
the Moon
OrcusKuiper belt (plutino)2474.7591026%1
CeresAsteroid belt4.617.994027%0
PlutoKuiper belt (plutino)2484.74237768%5
HaumeaKuiper belt (12:7)2854.531560≈ 45%2
QuaoarKuiper belt (cubewano)2894.51111032%1
MakemakeKuiper belt (cubewano)3064.41143041%1
GonggongScattered disc (10:3)5543.63123035%1
ErisScattered disc5583.62232667%1

Interesting Facts about Dwarf Planets

Here are a few interesting facts about the dwarf planets discovered in our solar system:

Ceres loses 6kg of its mass in steam every second

The Herschel Space Telescope observed plumes of water vapor shooting up from Ceres’ surface; this was the first definitive observation of water vapor in the asteroid belt. This happens when portions of Ceres’ icy surface warm up and turn into steam.

A day on Haumea lasts 3.9 hours

Haumea has a unique appearance due to its rotation, which is so rapid that it compresses the planet into an egg-like shape. Its rotational speed and collisional origin also make Haumea one of the densest dwarf planets discovered to date.

Makemake was named three years after its discovery in 2005

Makemake’s discovery close to Easter influenced both its name and nickname. Before being named after the creator of humanity and god of fertility in the mythos of the Rapa Nui (the native people of Easter Island), Makemake was nicknamed “Easter bunny” by its discoverer Mike Brown.

Eris was once considered for the position of the 10th planet

Eris is the most massive dwarf planet in the solar system, exceeding Pluto’s mass by 28%. As such, it was a serious contender to become the tenth planet but failed to meet the criteria set out by the IAU.

Pluto is one-third ice

The planet’s composition makes up two-thirds rock and one-third ice, mostly a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide. One day on Pluto is 153.6 hours, approximately 6.4 Earth days, making it one of the slowest rotating dwarf planets.

Exploratory Missions and New Planets on the Horizon

With newer technology rapidly available to the scientific community and new exploratory missions getting more data and information about trans-Neptunian objects, our understanding of dwarf planets will increase.

Nestled in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the asteroid Hygiea remains a controversy. Hygiea is the fourth largest object in the asteroid belt behind Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas and ticks all the boxes necessary to be classified as a dwarf planet.

So what’s holding back Hygiea’s confirmation as a dwarf planet? The criterion for being massive enough to form a spherical shape is in contention; it remains unclear if its roundness results from collision/impact disruption or its mass/gravity.

Along with Hygiea, other exciting dwarf planets could be soon discovered. Here is a quick rundown of some serious contenders:

Potential Dwarf Planets Under Investigation

120347 Salacia

Discovered in 2004, it is a trans-Neptunian object in the Kuiper belt, approximately 850 kilometers in diameter. As of 2018, it is located about 44.8 astronomical units from the Sun. Salacia’s status is in contention because its planetary density is arguable. It is uncertain if it can exist in hydrostatic equilibrium.

(307261) 2002 MS4

With an estimated diameter of 934±47 kilometers, 2002 MS4 is comparable in size to Ceres. Researchers need more data to determine whether 2002 MS4 is a dwarf planet or not.

(55565) 2002 AW197

Discovered at the Palomar Observatory in 2002, it has a rotation period of 8.8 hours, a moderately red color (similar to Quaoar) and no apparent planetary geology. Its low albedo has made it difficult to determine whether or not it is a dwarf planet.

174567 Varda

Varda takes its name after the queen of the Valar, creator of the stars, one of the most powerful servants of almighty Eru Iluvatar in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional mythology. Varda’s status as a dwarf planet is uncertain because its size and albedo suggest it might not be a fully solid body.

(532037) 2013 FY27

This space object has a surface diameter of about 740 kilometers. It orbits the Sun once every 449 years. Researchers need more data on the planet’s mass and density to determine if it is a dwarf planet or not.

(208996) 2003 AZ84

It is approximately 940 kilometers across its longest axis, as it has an elongated shape. This shape is presumably due to its rapid rotation rate of 6.71 hours, similar to that of other dwarf planets like Haumea. Like Varda, it remains unknown if this object has compressed into a fully solid body and thus remains contentious amongst astronomers regarding its planetary status.

*Note: The IAU officially recognizes five dwarf planets. We include four additional dwarf planets widely acknowledged by members of the scientific community, especially amongst leading planetary researchers like Gonzalo Tancredi, Michael Brown, and William Grundy. There are many more potential dwarf planets not listed here that remain under investigation.

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Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth’s Atmosphere

Earth’s atmosphere is thousands of miles long, but only a fraction can sustain life. Here’s a look at how small Earth’s habitable zone is.



Atmosphere to Scale

Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth’s Atmosphere

Earth is the only known planet that sustains life. Its atmosphere provides us with oxygen, protects us from the Sun’s radiation, and creates the barometric pressure needed so water stays liquid on our planet.

But while Earth’s atmosphere stretches for about 10,000 km (6,200 miles) above the planet’s surface, only a thin layer is actually habitable.

This graphic, inspired by Andrew Winter, shows just how small Earth’s “habitable zone” is, using the state of Florida as a point of reference.

Earth’s Like an Onion: It Has Layers

Our planet’s atmosphere is made up of a unique cocktail of gases—roughly 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with trace amounts of water, argon, carbon dioxide, and other gases.

It’s separated into five different layers:

  • Exosphere: The uppermost layer of our atmosphere that melds into outer space.
  • Thermosphere: Begins at around 80 km (50 miles) above sea level and extends to approximately 600 km (372 miles), reaching temperatures as high as 2,000°C (3,600°F).
  • Mesosphere: Around 30 km (19 miles) in range, meteors burn as they pass through this layer, creating “shooting stars.”
  • Stratosphere: Home to the ozone layer, which is responsible for absorbing a majority of the sun’s radiation.
  • Troposphere: The closest layer to ground. It stretches about 7–15 kilometers (5–10 miles) from the surface.

The troposphere makes up approximately 75-80% of the atmosphere’s mass, as it’s where most of the dust, ash, and water vapor are stored. But only a part of this layer is suitable for human life—in fact, the atmosphere’s habitable zone is so small, several mountain ranges extend beyond it.

Reaching Into Earth’s Atmosphere: Extremely High Altitudes

Elevations above 5,500 meters (18,000 ft) are considered extremely high altitude and require special equipment and/or acclimatization in order to survive. Even then, those who choose to venture to extreme heights run the risk of getting altitude sickness.

When it comes to the world’s tallest mountain ranges, the Himalayas are the highest. At their peak, Mount Everest, the Himalayas reach 8,848 m (29,000 ft) above sea level.

Mountain rangeHighest mountainHeightCountries
HimalayasMount Everest8,848 mNepal, China
KarakoramK28,611 mPakistan
Hindu KushTirich Mir7,708 mPakistan
Kongur ShanKongur Tagh7,649 mChina
Daxue MountainsMount Gongga7,556 mChina
Pamir MountainsIsmoil Somoni Peak7,495 mTajikistan
Kakshaal TooJengish Chokusu7,439 mChina, Kyrgyzstan
Nyenchen Tanglha MountainsGyala Peri7,294 mChina
AndesAconcagua6,960 mArgentina
Kunlun MountainsChakragil6,760 mChina
Cordillera de la RamadaMercedario6,720 mArgentina
Tian ShanXuelian Feng6,627 mChina
Hindu RajBuni Zom6,542 mPakistan
Cordillera OccidentalChimborazo6,263 mEcuador
Alaska RangeDenali6,191 mUSA
Saint Elias MountainsMount Logan5,959 mCanada
Eastern Rift mountainsMount Kilimanjaro5,895 mTanzania
Sierra Nevada de Santa MartaPico Cristóbal Colón5,700 mColombia
Caucasus MountainsMount Elbrus5,642 mRussia
Trans-Mexican Volcanic BeltPico de Orizaba5,636 mMexico
AlborzMount Damavand5,610 mIran
Yun RangeJade Dragon Snow Mountain5,596 mChina
Bogda ShanBogda Peak5,445 mChina
Cordillera OrientalRitacuba Blanco5,410 mColombia
Armenian HighlandsMount Ararat5,137 mTurkey
Rwenzori MountainsMount Stanley5,109 mCongo, Uganda

Despite the dangers of extreme altitude, hundreds of mountaineers attempt to climb Mount Everest each year. On Everest, the region above 8,000 m (26,000 feet) is referred to as the “death zone,” and climbers have to bring bottled oxygen on their trek in order to survive.

Life Beyond Earth

Earth is the only known planet with an atmosphere we can survive in. And even on Earth, certain areas are considered dead zones.

But there may be other life forms out in the galaxy that we haven’t discovered. Recent research in The Astrophysical Journal predicts there are at least 36 intelligent civilizations throughout the galaxy today.

So life may very well exist beyond Earth. It just might look a bit different than we’re used to.

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