Mapping Mars: The Geology of the Red Planet
View the high resolution version of this incredible map by clicking here
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.
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.
The 44 Closest Stars and How They Compare to our Sun
This graphic visualizes the 44 closest stars, revealing key facts such as distance from Earth, brightness, and whether potential planets are in orbit.
44 Closest Stars and How They Compare to our Sun
Humans have been fascinated by the stars in the night sky since the dawn of time.
We’ve been decoding the mysteries of celestial bodies for many centuries, but it is only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve been able to glean more detailed information on the lights that dot the night sky. Friedrich Bessel’s method of stellar parallax was a breakthrough in accurately measuring the positions of stars, and opened new doors in the effort to map our universe. Today, high-powered telescopes offer even more granular data on our cosmic neighborhood.
The infographic above, from Alan’s Factory Outlet, categorizes the 44 closest stars to Earth, examining the size, luminosity, constellations, systems, and potential planets of each star.
Our Nearest Stellar Neighbors
Our closest neighboring stars are all part of the same solar system: Alpha Centauri. This triple star system – consisting of Proxima Centauri, Alpha Centauri A, and Alpha Centauri B – attracts a lot of interest because it hosts planets, including one that may be similar to Earth.
The planet, Proxima Centauri b, is a lot closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. However, because Proxima Centauri is a smaller and cooler red dwarf type star, the planet’s orbit is within the habitable zone. It’s thought that Proxima Centauri b receives approximately the same amount of solar energy as Earth does from our Sun.
Here’s a full list of the 44 of the closest stars to Earth:
|Star Name||Distance (light years)||MoE|
|α Centauri A||4.37||±0.0068|
|α Centauri B||4.37||±0.0068|
|Luyten 726-8 A||8.79||±0.012|
|Luyten 726-8 B||8.79||±0.012|
|EZ Aquarii A||11.11||±0.034|
|61 Cygni A||11.40||±0.0012|
|61 Cygni B||11.40||±0.0012|
|Struve 2398 A||11.49||±0.0012|
|Struve 2398 B||11.49||±0.0012|
|Groombridge 34 A||11.62||±0.0008|
|Groombridge 34 B||11.62||±0.0008|
|Kruger 60 A||13.07||±0.0052|
|Kruger 60 B||13.07||±0.0052|
|Wolf 424 A||14.05||±0.26|
|Van Maanen's star||14.07||±0.0023|
Even though we see many of these stars in the night sky, humans aren’t likely to see them in person any time soon. To put these vast distances into perspective, if the Voyager spacecraft were to travel to Proxima Centauri, it would take over 73,000 years to finally arrive.
The Brightest Stars in the Sky
The closest stars aren’t necessarily the ones most visible to us here on Earth. Here are the top 10 stars in terms of visual brightness from Earth:
|Rank||Proper name||Constellation||Visual magnitude (mV)||Distance (light years)|
|4||Rigil Kentaurus & Toliman||Centaurus||−0.27 (0.01 + 1.33)||4.4|
Excluding our Sun, the brightest star visible from Earth is Sirius, or the Dog Star. Sirius, which is about 25 times more luminous than the sun, visually punctuates the constellation Canis Major.
Filling in the Gaps
The next step in learning more about our surroundings in the cosmos will be seeing which of the stars listed above have planets orbiting them. So far, the 44 stars in the infographic have over 40 planets scattered among them, though new discoveries are made all the time.
With each new mission and discovery, we learn a little bit more about our pocket of the universe.
Mapped: The Geology of the Moon in Astronomical Detail
Behold the glory of the Unified Geologic Map of the Moon, which brings decades of data into one map, revealing the potential for exploration.
Mapped: The Geology of the Moon in Astronomical Detail
If you were to land on the Moon, where would you go?
Today’s post is the incredible Unified Geologic Map of the Moon from the USGS, which combines information from six regional lunar maps created during the Apollo era, as well as recent spacecraft observations.
Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky
Since the beginning of humankind, the Moon has captured our collective imagination. It is one of the few celestial bodies visible to the naked eye from Earth. Over time different cultures wrapped the Moon in their own myths. To the Egyptians it was the god Thoth, to the Greeks, the goddess Artemis, and to the Hindus, Chandra.
Thoth was portrayed as a wise counselor who solved disputes and invented writing and the 365-day calendar. A headdress with a lunar disk sitting atop a crescent moon denoted Thoth as the arbiter of times and seasons.
Artemis was the twin sister of the sun god Apollo, and in Greek mythology she presided over childbirth, fertility, and the hunt. Just like her brother that illuminated the day, she was referred to as the torch bringer during the dark of night.
Chandra means the “Moon” in Sanskrit, Hindi, and other Indian languages. According to one Hindu legend, Ganesha—an elephant-headed deity—was returning home on a full moon night after a feast. On the journey, a snake crossed his pathway, frightening his horse. An overstuffed Ganesha fell to the ground on his stomach, vomiting out his dinner. On observing this, Chandra laughed, causing Ganesha to lose his temper. He broke off one of his tusks and hurled it toward the Moon, cursing him so that he would never be whole again. This legend describes the Moon’s waxing and waning including the big crater on the Moon, visible from Earth.
Such lunar myths have waned as technology has evolved, removing the mystery of the Moon but also opening up scientific debate.
Celestial Evolution: Two Theories
The pot marks on the Moon can be easily seen from the Earth’s surface with the naked eye, and it has led to numerous theories as to the history of the Moon. Recent scientific study brings forward two primary ideas.
One opinion of those who have studied the Moon is that it was once a liquid mass, and that its craters represent widespread and prolonged volcanic activity, when the gases and lava of the heated interior exploded to the surface.
However, there is another explanation for these lunar craters. According to G. K. Gilbert, of the USGS, the Moon was formed by the joining of a ring of meteorites which once encircled the Earth, and after the formation of the lunar sphere, the impact of meteors produced “craters” instead of arising from volcanic activity.
Either way, mapping the current contours of the lunar landscape will guide future human missions to the Moon by revealing regions that may be rich in useful resources or areas that need more detailed mapping to land a spacecraft safely .
Lay of the Land: Reading the Contours of the Moon
This map is a 1:5,000,000-scale geologic map built from six separate digital maps. The goal was to create a resource for science research and analysis to support future geologic mapping efforts.
Mapping purposes divide the Moon into the near side and far side. The far side of the Moon is the side that always faces away from the Earth, while the near side faces towards the Earth.
The most visible topographic feature is the giant far side South Pole-Aitken basin, which possesses the lowest elevations of the Moon. The highest elevations are found just to the northeast of this basin. Other large impact basins, such as the Maria Imbrium, Serenitatis, Crisium, Smythii, and Orientale, also have low elevations and elevated rims.
The colors on the map help to define regional features while also highlighting consistent patterns across the lunar surface. Each one of these regions hosts the potential for resources.
Only further study will resolve the evolution of the Moon, but it is clear that there are resources earthlings can exploit. Hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron, magnesium, calcium, aluminum, manganese, and titanium are some of the metals and minerals on the Moon.
Interestingly, oxygen is the most abundant element on the Moon. It’s a primary component found in rocks, and this oxygen can be converted to a breathable gas with current technology. A more practical question would be how to best power this process.
Lunar soil is the easiest to mine, it can provide protection from radiation and meteoroids as material for construction. Ice can provide water for radiation shielding, life support, oxygen, and rocket propellant feed stock. Compounds from permanently shadowed craters could provide methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
This is just the beginning—as more missions are sent to the Moon, there is more to discover.
Space Faring Humans
NASA plans to land astronauts—one female, one male—to the Moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis 3 mission, and after that, about once each year. It’s the beginning of an unfulfilled promise to make humans a space-faring civilization.
The Moon is just the beginning…the skills learned to map Near-Earth Objects will be the foundation for further exploration and discovery of the universe.
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