, [1] named after the Roman god of war and sometimes referred to as the "Red Planet," orbits the Sun at an average distance of 227,939,100 kilometers or 1.52 AU (1 AU being the mean distance between the Sun and Earth approximately 150,000,000 km) placing it just inside or at the outer periphery of the Solar System’s habitable zone, [2] while a diameter of 6,792 kilometers makes it the seventh of the planets in size. 

Romanticized in literature and made the home of both fictional and imaginary civilizations by great science fiction writers such as Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, H.G.Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and one great if somewhat over-exuberant astronomer Percival Lowell, Mars is in truth a prime candidate for life of some sort, and if the resolve of those involved in the search is any indicator the truth should be forthcoming in the relatively near future.

A great many spacecraft have visited Mars beginning with Mariner 4 in 1965 (NASA'S Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution [MAVEN] probe and India's Mars Orbiter Mission [MOM] probe the most recent), but it was on July 4,1997, that a technological milestone and planetary first became reality when the Mars Pathfinder successfully landed in Ares Vallis, opened, and allowed a mobile rover called Sojourner to begin examining the surrounding terrain. This was followed by the Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which were successfully delivered to the planets surface and began controlled exploration in 2004, by the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008, a static device designed to search for enviorments suitable for microbial life and confirm the presence of subsurface water ice and in 2012 by Curiosity, the largest (the size of a small car) most sophisticated and technologically advanced rover to date. [3]

Armed with high resolution cameras, spectrometers and other scientific equipment these solar/nuclear powered robots are sending back invaluable information and incredible images. This information along with that being gathered by orbiters such as Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and now newcomers MAVEN and MOM is part of an ongoing process which slowly but surely is uncovering Mars' secrets. (A new addition to the mix, ExoMars [Exobiology on Mars] 2016, a collaboration between ESA and Roscosmos arrived in October 2016. The mission's aim, according to ESA, is to determine "whether Mars is alive".) [4]

The search for water both on and below the surface is a high priority. Its presence in significant amounts is of paramount importance to future human exploration and eventual colonization of the planet. In fact a vast frozen sea has been discovered in Mars’ Elysium region, covered in dust and other detritus it appears to be less than five million years old. 

Mars Express cleared up one misconception with its high resolution cameras, when it sent back pictures of the “Face on Mars” first observed by Viking 1 in 1976 and the subject of much hype and controversy. The high resolution images remove all doubt about the mysterious formation, confirming its natural origin. Alas there are no eyes, nose or mouth; it's just a play of light and shadow, an optical illusion. The face is a natural geologic feature.

The “Face” aside Mars does have a number of incredible landmarks: Olympus Mons, a shield volcano, is roughly 600 km in diameter (an area the size of Arizona) with a height of 22 km (local relief), and a total elevation change, from the plains to the northwest to its summit, of almost 26 kilometers. Valles Marineris, the largest known crevice in the Solar System, is a 4,500 km long series of canyons in places 7 km deep. (Earth's Grand Canyon is 446 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers deep.) Hellas Planitia a large crater in the southern hemisphere is 6 to 7 km deep, over 2,000 km in diameter and was probably formed by an asteroid impact some 3.9 billion years ago. (The Arizona Meteor Crater is 1.2 km in diameter and 173 meters deep.)

Mars has a new scar, a fresh impact crater discovered recently on the Elysium Planitia plain by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Astronomers believe it was created between February of 2012 and June of 2014. The debris field suggests the impacting body struck from the west.

The majority of Martian meteorites (shergottites) found on Earth are thought to have originated in the Mojave Crater, a 34 mile (55 km) wide basin located on the Red Planet's equator.

Mars has a very thin atmosphere (about 1 percent of Earths) [5] composed mainly of carbon dioxide with small amounts of oxygen, water, nitrogen and argon. The average surface temperature is -63 degrees Celsius, the maximum, a balmy 20 degrees Celsius.

Mars has two moons: Deimos and Phobos.

[1] Before taking on the attributes of the Greek god Ares, the Roman god Mars was a god of agriculture.

[2] This designation does not necessarily mean that Mars harbors life, being inside a star system's habitable zone is just one of many factors that influence a planetary body’s ability to sustain and nurture life.

[3] NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., November 26, 2011, its destination and date of arrival Gale Crater, Mars, early August 2012. Curiosity, its rover, is twice as long (3 meters or ten feet) and five times heavier than either Spirit or Opportunity its payload ten times as massive. Powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), that converts heat from the decay of plutonium-238 into electricity, the semi-autonomous vehicle is capable of traversing long distances (comparatively speaking) and is expected to have a 2 Earth years (1 Martian year) or longer operating lifespan. The MSL mission's primary objectives are to determine whether Mars has ever supported life, study its climate and geology and gather data for future manned missions.

At 05:17 UTC on August 6, 2012, Curiosity landed safely on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater, its orientation confirmed (following a fourteen minute delay) by transmitted images taken by the vehicle's Hazcams (hazard avoidance cameras).

After several weeks of engineering checks Curiosity was deemed fit to travel. On August 22, 2012, it took its first "baby steps" ending up about 20 feet (6 meters) from the landing site, the site given the name "Bradbury Landing" in honor of the late great Ray Bradbury science fiction icon and author of The Martian Chronicles, the entire episode taking approximately 16 minutes.

On February 28, 2013, having traveled half a mile and while begining an analysis of pulverized rock at Glenelg, a point of convergence for three types of geologic formations, Curiosity's first major drive destination and the location of its debut drill site an outcrop named "John Klein," the rover suffered a glitch and was placed in safe mode with all its activities suspended pending a resolution.

In early March, the malfunction, a problem with flash memory, was fixed with the switching of the A-side and B-side computers as primary, and Curiosity once again functional was almost ready to go until sidelined on March 16 by yet another anomaly.

NASA engineers, apparently having overcome the latest setback, returned the rover to active status on March 19.

An analysis of the rock sample, a fine-grained mudstone once part of a body of water that wasn't too acidic, oxidizing or salty, appears to show ancient Mars had all the prerequisites neccessary to support (in the form of micro-organisms) life. Or as John Grotzinger, Mars Science Labratory project scientist at Caltech, talking about a time three billion years ago, states it was "so benign and supportive of life that probably if the water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it."

It remains, however, that simply because ancient Mars may have had regions conducive to life does not mean that life existed, nor, wishfull thinking aside, that life on the Red Planet exists today. In fact a lack of methane (a byproduct of life) as per atmospheric testing by Curiosity, has been greatly disappointing to the scientists involved.

"Every time we looked, we never saw it," said Christopher Webster, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the research published online in the journal Science; adding that while the result was "disappointing in many ways" the hunt for the elusive gas continues. (Michael Mumma of NASA,s Goddard Space Flight Center previously noticed a mysterious burst of methane from three regions in Mars' western hemisphere. Mumma, who had no role in the latest study, said he stood by his observations.)

Following an oft harrowing two year journey Curiosity has finally arrived at Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) the central peak within Gale Crater and its long-term prime destination. It has now now began a slow ascent, drilling into and analyzing rocky material as it goes. The team, still hopeful, are searching for signs of carbon-based (organic) molecules considered the chemical building blocks of life.

[4] After a succesful separation from its mothership
the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)the ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing technology demonstrator module was lost during an attempted landing. The mothership contiues to function and will, following aerobraking, begin its primary mission the search for lfe. The second part of the Exo mission has been delayed untill 2020, the next optimal launch window.

[5] If your wondering as to the fate of Mars' atmosphere. According to NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution [MAVEN] probe it's being thinned by the solar wind, atoms and molecules stripped away to eventualy dissipate in space.

* On January 3, 2013, a comet was discovered at a distance of 7.2 AU by veteran comet hunter Robert H. McNaught using the 0.5-meter (20 in) Upsalla Southern Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, New South Wales. Named Siding Spring (more formally C/2013 A1 Siding Spring) after the observatory, it was thought at first to be on a collision course with Mars. A little number crunching revealed this to be incorrect, but it would be a close-run thing: Mars, in fact, would pass through the comet's tail. Orbiters were moved to the far side of the planet to protect them from possibly damaging debris, and rovers (for the most part protected by the Martian atmosphere) were positioned accordingly. On October 19, 2014, Siding Spring, visitor from the Oort Cloud, sped by Mars at 56 km per second (126,000 miles per hour) its closest approach about 88,000 miles (140,000 km). Interaction between the two bodies was minimal. 

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