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The Topography of Mars: Visualizing an Alien Landscape

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The Topography of Mars

The Topography of Mars: Visualizing an Alien Landscape

The surface of the Red Planet is full of surprises.

While the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest are both impressive features on Earth, they are nothing next to Valles Marineris and Olympus Mons, their epic Martian counterparts.

Even more extraordinary, the overall difference between the highest and lowest point on Mars is 19 miles (31 km), whereas just 12 miles (20 km) separates the summit of Mount Everest from the bottom of the Mariana Trench on Earth.

This week’s map comes to us from Reddit user /hellofromthemoon, who carefully laid out the terrain of Mars in awesome detail.

Take a look…

Lay of the Land

Mars can be divided into two major regions, separated by a ridge of mountains roughly around the planet’s middle.

On the north side are lowlands that have been shaped by lava flows, creating a surface dominated by large plains. Meanwhile, the southern hemisphere is mountainous, with many meteorite impact craters, some of which stretch for hundreds of kilometers.

The Plains Game

The plains of Mars fall into two categories: the planitia (Latin for “plains”) and the maria (Latin for “seas”). The latter type is named after the sea because these regions appeared to be under water in the eyes of early astronomers. But actually, the surfaces of these regions are covered with many rocks, making them look darker to the eye.

The second type of plains are the planitia, and they account for vast areas covered by sand rich in iron oxide. The strong winds that blow the sand and dust around can change the configuration of the plains, forming new patterns on the surface of Mars. However, the planet’s features remain relatively unchanged over time.

One of the largest plains is the Utopia Planitia (Latin for “Nowhere Land Plain”) impact basin. This giant impact crater lies within a larger lava plain. With an estimated diameter of 3,300 km, Utopia Planitia is the largest recognized impact basin in the solar system.

As Above, so Below

The northern and southern hemispheres are vastly different from one another on Mars, and such a stark difference is unlike any other planet in the solar system. Patterns of internal magma flow could have caused the variation, but some scientists think it is the result of Mars taking one or several major impacts.

About 4.5 billion years ago, Mars formed from the collection of rocks that circle the sun before they formed the planets. Over time, the red planet’s molten masses differentiated into a core, a mantle, and an outer crust.

Understanding how the red planet’s topography changes over time is a crucial step in grasping how the planet formed. That is why NASA launched the InSight Mars lander on May 5, 2019. This probe will listen for vibrations deep within the Martian crust to further understand the composition of the planet.

Site Selection

Understanding the topography of Mars is critical for any mission to the planet, including the selection of a site for a potential colony. There are three basic criteria for picking a manned mission landing site:

  1. A spot that is sustainable in terms of water, energy generation, and building materials.
  2. A spot that is scientifically interesting for a long mission.
  3. A spot that is safe to land.

Brian Hynek, a planetary scientist and Director of the Center for Astrobiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, offers five potential landing sites:

  1. Outer edge of Mars’ North polar ice cap
  2. Deep canyon of Valles Marineris
  3. Martian “glaciers” in the Hellas Basin near Mars’ mid-latitudes
  4. Arabia Terra
  5. Martian lava tubes and caves

With growing information from every new mission to Mars, a greater picture will help guide future human activity and ambitions on the planet.

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Misc

The Most Popular Wikipedia Pages, 2007-2019

Millions flock to Wikipedia every day to satisfy their curiosity on every imaginable topic. What have been the most popular Wikipedia pages over time?

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The Most Popular Wikipedia Pages, From 2007-2019

Where do you go to satisfy your curiosity about the world? Chances are, most people would turn to Google, where the first search result for virtually any topic is likely to be Wikipedia.

Wikipedia often acts as a quick-and-dirty first source of information—and today’s intriguing animation from Data Geek shows what people are reading about the most. The video highlights more than a decade of the most popular pages on Wikipedia, sorted by total monthly views.

Which topics of interest race to the top?

Note to readers: Page view statistics are only for the English version of Wikipedia, which has nearly 6 million total articles to date.

A One-Stop Shop of Information

Since its 2001 inception, Wikipedia has thrived as an open collaboration project, catapulting it into the ranks of the world’s top websites today. Over the years, the upper limit of views for the most popular pages has dramatically increased.

In 2008, the most popular Wikipedia page belonged to Barack Obama, during his U.S. Presidential campaign, garnering about 3 million views per month. By 2019, the page for the United States took its place at the top, this time soaring to nearly 200 million monthly views.

The 12 most popular Wikipedia pages fluctuate in category, with some expected winners. Throughout the years, World War II shows up consistently in the rankings, likely propelled by research for school assignments.

The U.S. is another undisputed, most-viewed page for nine years in a row (2011-2019). Following the November 2016 U.S. election, pageviews for Donald Trump also leapt into the top three.

Here’s how the most popular pages shake out over a decade:

RankJan 2008Jan 2012Jan 2016Jan 2019
#1Barack ObamaU.S.U.S.U.S.
#2U.S.Lady GagaBarack ObamaDonald Trump
#3Harry PotterThe BeatlesIndiaBarack Obama
#4World War IIBarack ObamaLady GagaIndia
#5Kim KardashianMichael JacksonMichael JacksonWorld War II
#6Britney SpearsIndiaWorld War IIMichael Jackson
#7Miley CyrusEminemGame of ThronesUK
#8SexUKEminemLady Gaga
#9Lil WayneLil WayneUKEminem
#10IndiaWorld War IIThe BeatlesGame of Thrones
#11Will SmithGlee (TV)Justin BieberElizabeth II
#12UKJustin BieberAdolf HitlerAdolf Hitler

Musicians also regularly top the charts, thanks to their illustrious careers and the public’s curiosity about their private lives. Michael Jackson holds a record for longest best-selling artist, but also for one of the most viewed Wikipedia pages, especially after his death in mid-2009.

A Crowdsourced Snapshot of the World

These popular Wikipedia pages provide an interesting angle on current events of the time, although it should be taken with a grain of salt.

For example, the 2008 financial crisis is arguably one of the biggest events of this decade—yet it doesn’t make an appearance in these most viewed pages. One possible reason is that more reputable sources of information exist about the event, as it was widely covered in the media.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia’s mission is to freely share knowledge, relying on over 250,000 monthly volunteers to keep its information accessible by anyone.

Breaking Down Barriers

Boasting over 50 million articles, it’s not hard to see why Wikipedia has reigned supreme as a crowdsourced catalog of information. However, a lesser known fact is that just one man is responsible for a significant chunk of the website’s English-language articles.

In 2017, Steven Pruitt was named one of Time Magazine’s “most influential people on the Internet” for making over 3 million edits and authoring 35,000 original pages on Wikipedia—all for free.

Pruitt is even helping to solve Wikipedia’s gender bias, and has expanded the share of biographical articles about women from 15% to 17.6% in a few short years.

I’m very conscious of what it can mean to make knowledge free, to make information free.

—Steven Pruitt

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Misc

Visualizing the Speed of Light (Fast, but Slow)

In our every day lives, light is instantaneous – but in the context of our solar system and beyond, light is surprisingly slow.

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Visualizing the Speed of Light

With the flip of a switch, your room can be instantenously flooded with brightness.

In fact, there is no noticeable lag effect at all.

That’s because emitted photons travel at 186,000 miles (300,000 km) per second, meaning it takes only 1/500,000th of a second for light to reach even the furthest part of an ordinary room. And, if it could go through the wall, it would orbit the entire planet 7.5 times in just one second.

Light Speed is Fast…

In our every day experiences, we never see light as having to “take time” to do anything. It’s inconceivably fast, brightening up everything in its path in an instant — and with a few odd caveats, scientists believe light speed to be the fastest-known achievable pace in the universe.

But what if we get out of our bubble, and look at light from outside the confines of life on Earth?

Today’s animation, which comes from planetary scientist Dr. James O’Donoghue, helps visualize the speed of light in a broader context. It helps remind us of the mechanics of this incredible phenomenon, while also highlighting the vast distances between celestial bodies — even in our small and insignificant corner of the solar system.

Light Speed is Slow…

Once a photon is sent into the vast abyss, suddenly the fastest possible speed seems somewhat pedestrian.

  • Moon: It takes about 1.255 seconds for light to get from Earth to the moon.
  • Mars: Mars is about 150x further than the moon — about 40 million miles (54.6 million km) in the closest approach — so it takes 3 minutes to get there from Earth.
  • Sun: The sun is 93 million miles (150 million km) away, meaning it takes 8 minutes to see its light.

Let that sink in for a moment: the sun could explode right now, and we wouldn’t even know about it for eight long minutes.

Going Further, Taking Longer

If it takes light a few minutes to get to the closest planets, how long does it take for light to travel further away from Earth?

  • Jupiter: The largest planet is 629 million km away when it’s closest, taking light about 35 minutes.
  • Saturn: The ringed planet is about as twice as far as Jupiter, taking light 71 minutes.
  • Pluto: It takes about 5.5 hours for light to go from Earth to the dwarf planet.
  • Alpha Centauri: The nearest star system is 4.3 light years away, or 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km).
  • Visible stars: The average distance to the 300 brightest stars in the sky is about 347 light years.

If you really want to get the feeling of how “slow” light really is, watch the below video and journey from the sun to Jupiter. It’s done in real-time, so it takes about 43 minutes:

So while light obviously travels at a ludicrous speed, it really depends on your vantage point.

On Earth, light is instantaneous – but anywhere else in the universe, it’s pretty inadequate for getting anywhere far (especially in contrast to the average human lifespan).

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