Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars, it is often described as the "Red Planet" as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth. The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the highest known mountain within the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature.
Mars is a terrestrial planet that consists of minerals containing silicon and oxygen, metals, and other elements that typically make up rock. The surface of Mars is primarily composed of tholeiitic basalt, although parts are more silica-rich than typical basalt and may be similar to andesitic rocks on Earth or silica glass. Regions of low albedo show concentrations of plagioclase feldspar, with northern low albedo regions displaying higher than normal concentrations of sheet silicates and high-silicon glass. Parts of the southern highlands include detectable amounts of high-calcium pyroxenes. Localized concentrations of hematite and olivine have also been found. Much of the surface is deeply covered by finely grained iron(III) oxide dust.
The Phoenix lander returned data showing Martian soil to be slightly alkaline and containing elements such as magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. These nutrients are found in gardens on Earth, and are necessary for growth of plants. Experiments performed by the Lander showed that the Martian soil has a basic pH of 8.3, and may contain traces of the salt perchlorate.
Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars due to low atmospheric pressure, except at the lowest elevations for short periods. The two polar ice caps appear to be made largely of water. The volume of water ice in the south polar ice cap, if melted, would be sufficient to cover the entire planetary surface to a depth of 11 meters. A permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°.
Mars has two permanent polar ice caps. During a pole's winter, it lies in continuous darkness, chilling the surface and causing the deposition of 25–30% of the atmosphere into slabs of CO2 ice (dry ice). When the poles are again exposed to sunlight, the frozen CO2 sublimes, creating enormous winds that sweep off the poles as fast as 400 km/h. These seasonal actions transport large amounts of dust and water vapor, giving rise to Earth-like frost and large cirrus clouds. Clouds of water-ice were photographed by the Opportunity rover in 2004.
The shield volcano, Olympus Mons (Mount Olympus), at 27 km is the highest known mountain in the Solar System. It is an extinct volcano in the vast upland region Tharsis, which contains several other large volcanoes. Olympus Mons is over three times the height of Mount Everest, which in comparison stands at just over 8.8 km.
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