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Photo: Vaisala.com

Mars is in the news a lot these days, with last week’s successful landing of the robot rover Curiosity on the surface of the Red Planet. People have long been fascinated by Mars, and the idea of sending people to the planet has been a source of science fiction and science exploration for decades. Part of the interest is because scientists believe that 3.5 billion years ago, the climate of Mars may have been warm and wet, and might have supported life.

Here are 9 other fascinating facts about Mars

1. Mars Had Water In The Ancient Past

We’ve been debating for centuries about whether Mars had life or not. In fact, the astronomer Percival Lowell misinterpreted observations of "canali" — the Italian word for channels — on the planet as evidence of alien-made canals. It turned out Lowell’s observations were hampered by poor telescope optics of his day, and the canals he saw were optical illusions. That said, several spacecraft have spotted other signs of ancient water — channels grooved in the terrain and rocks that only could have formed in the presence of water, for example.

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Photo: Thecosmiccompanion.net

2. Mars Has Frozen Water Today

We’re very interested in the question of water because it implies habitability; simply put, life as we know it is more likely to exist with water there. In fact, the Curiosity rover’s mandate on Mars right now is to search for habitable environments (in the past or present). Mars has a thin atmosphere that does not allow water to flow or remain in large quantities on the surface, but we know for sure that there is ice at the poles — and possibly frosty locations elsewhere on the planet. The question is if the ice is capable of melting enough water in the summer long enough to support any microbes.

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Photo: Engadgetcom

3. Pieces of Mars have been found on Earth

It is believed that trace amounts of the Martian atmosphere were within meteorites that the planet ejected. These meteorites then orbited the solar system for millions of years amongst the other objects and solar debris before eventually entering the Earth’s atmosphere and crashing to the ground. The study of this material has allowed scientists to discover more about Mars before launching space missions.

4. Mars has the largest dust storms in the solar system

They can last for months and cover the entire planet. The seasons are extreme because its elliptical (oval-shaped) orbital path around the Sun is more elongated than most other planets in the Solar system.

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Photo: Sciencenews.org

5. Mars takes its name from the Roman god of war

The ancient Greeks called the planet Ares, after their god of war; the Romans then did likewise, associating the planet’s blood-red colour with Mars, their own god of war. Interestingly, other ancient cultures also focused on colour – to China’s astronomers it was ‘the fire star’, whilst Egyptian priests called on ‘Her Desher’, or ‘the red one’. The red colour Mars is known for is due to the rock and dust covering its surface being rich in iron.

6. Sunsets on Mars are blue

During the martian day the sky is pinkish-red, this is the opposite of the Earth’s skies.

The bluish tinge comes from the fact the fine dust on Mars is the right size so for blue light to penetrates the atmosphere more efficiently. When the blue light scatters, it stays closer to the direction of the sun than the light of other colours. The rest of the sky is yellow to orange, as yellow and red light scatter all over the sky instead of being absorbed or staying close to the sun.

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Photo: Seeker.com

7. Mars Would Kill An Unprotected Astronaut Quickly

There are a lot of unpleasant scenarios for somebody who took of their helmet. First, Mars is usually pretty cold; its average temperature is -50 degrees F (-45 degrees C) at the mid-latitudes. Second, it has practically no atmosphere. The air pressure on Mars is only 1% of what we have (on average) on the Earth’s surface. And third, even if it did have atmosphere, the composition is not compatible with the nitrogen-oxygen mix humans require. Specifically, Mars has about 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and a few other elements in its atmosphere.

8. On Mars the Sun appears about half the size as it does on Earth.

At the closest point to the Sun, the Martian southern hemisphere leans towards the Sun, causing a short, intensely hot summer, while the northern hemisphere endures a brief, cold winter: at its farthest point from the Sun, the Martian northern hemisphere leans towards the Sun, causing a long, mild summer, while the southern hemisphere endures a lengthy, cold winter.

9. The tallest mountain known in the solar system is on Mars

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Photo: Space.com

Olympus Mons is a 21 km high and 600 km diameter shield volcano that was formed billions of years ago. Scientists have found a lot of recent evidence of volcanic lava which suggests Olympus Mons may still be active. It is the second highest mountain in the entire solar system, topped only by the Rheasilvia central peak on the asteroid Vesta, which is 22 km high.

Life on Mars: Will humans trash the planet like we have Earth?

Mountains of garbage, plastics that take thousands of years to disintegrate, oil spills in pristine environments from drilling into the soil or underneath the ocean: When we go to Mars, is it inevitable we'll repeat the same mistakes on Earth? Resources will be so limited that creating a waste stream will be nearly impossible – at least at first. That's because humans will only take what we absolutely need due to the limited space on rockets and spaceships and the time it takes to get to the planet – nine to 11 months, one-way.

"Everything that you use and you create on Mars is so valuable. You simply can’t afford a pollution stream, you can’t afford a waste stream at all. Everything will absolutely be recycled ... at least in the beginning," said Stephen Petranek, author of "How We’ll Live on Mars." While there will be little to no waste at first on Mars, that doesn't mean we can ignore the potential to backslide down the road.

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