Stormy Mars

Fact File:

Diameter: 6790 km

Distance to Sun: 1.5 AU

Solar Orbit: 687 days

No of Moons: 2

Red storms rage across Mars. Huge storms of iron-rich dust swirl up, even covering its entire surface - except for the white, frozen poles. As these storms gradually subside, the first things to become visible are the tops of its huge volcanoes. Mars is a desolate world whose silence is broken by the roar of winds, the hiss of dust, the rumble of mammoth landslides and possibly by volcanic outbursts. The red planet is internally active and has towering volcanoes that used to erupt, larger than any on Earth. Paradoxically, it has no magnetic field, even though it is covered with iron. Mars' atmosphere has no oxygen but its dust is all iron oxide, suggesting that its combustion-processes all took place long ago. 

NASA has a picture of Mars (left) during what seems to be its biggest storm on record, during July/August of 2001, as was still in full swing during the cataclysm of 9/11 (1), with the whole planet glowing red. It had 'engulfed the entire planet for the last three months' a BBC report stated, in the beginning of October. For the Planet of War one can't help feeling how that seems appropriate: for a new kind of war without frontiers, a doom for our new millennium.

There is a huge gash across the equator of Mars, Valles Marineris, looking as if hewn with a giant axe, ten times bigger than the Grand Canyon - the largest valley in the solar system. Its huge volcano Olympus Mons is the largest mountain in the solar system. Deep chasms are testimony to the torrents of water than must have gurgled there once, and prolific mudflats and gullies indicate water-activity. Somehow, it all disappeared, along with the oxygen that must have been in the atmosphere.

Seams of iron here on Earth turn red at the surface. Mars has three times more iron on its surface than does Earth, all in its red, oxidised condition. Mars' atmosphere has white clouds of water-ice, yellowish dust clouds, bluish limb hazes and bright surface frosts. Water-ice clouds hover around the giant volcanoes. Mars is more earth-like than any other planet, having four seasons thanks to its axis being similarly tilted to Earth's, and a day only forty minutes longer. Each year the Martian polar ice caps thaw and vapourise. The ever-changing colours of Mars are not due to vegetation as was often believed. Recent, convincing evidence tells how water once flowed on Mars: its dried-up water channels run for hundreds of kilometers, indicating that Mars was once warmer and wetter. One feels that Life tried hard to emerge on Mars, but just didn't quite make it. 

Two potato-shaped, meteor-battered moons hurtle round, one of which will crash upon Mars's surface, in due time.  They are called Phobos and Diemos, fear (or panic) and terror. The names came from Homer's Iliad (Book XV), where Mars the war-god prepares to emerge onto the battlefield:


"And he ordered Phobos and Diemos to harness his horses

While he himself donned his sparkling armour".


Owing to its low orbit, Phobos is doomed finally to disintegrate - it is destined for destruction, calculated to crash. As the media harps on the themes of fear and terror, one feels nowadays as if these Martial moons are orbiting around Earth. Seen from Mars, these two moons revolve in opposite direction: the nearer one zips across the horizon in a mere five hours, while the more distant one (Diemos) sojourns across the sky in three days. Diemos moves in a perfectly circular path, i.e. its orbit has zero eccentricity, like that of a modern telecommunications satellite.

Mars drew nearest to us in recorded history in 2003, as Mars' solar opposition fell upon its perihelion (around Capricorn/Pisces boundary), which is not far from Earth's aphelion, that made it extra-close. Mars grows brightest in the sky every two years and two months, its synodic cycle, at its solar opposition. It shines brightly when opposite the Sun in the sky, and then draws nearest to us. The Mars Express has to use this synodic interval for the timing of its flights (2). Mars' orbit is far more elliptical than that of Earth. For comparison, perihelion is closer than its aphelion by:


Venus - 1%  to the Sun

Earth - 3%  to the Sun

      Moon (perigee/apogee) - 11%  to the Earth

Mars - 20%  to the Sun


Thus, eccentric Mars is some twenty percent closer, while Venus has a nearly circular orbit. Earth comes three percent nearer to the Sun in midwinter (around January 3rd) than in midsummer, and Luna draws 11% closer at perigee than at apogee.

Image from Mars - Viking lander 1:  (3) 

There have been three dozen missions to Mars - yes, it's hard to believe, isn't it? And two-thirds of them have failed. Now that is an awful lot of failures. Is there some Mars gremlin that gets to them, or is it just the unpredictable and stormy atmosphere and rocky surface? Whatever the reason, all these failures have knocked the stuffing out of hopes of Man getting to Mars in our lifetime. Some wish to alter Mars to make it suitable for life, called 'terraforming'. The first step in this would involve manufacturing global-warming type gases on its surface, and very slowly these would warm up Mars. Then, after maybe a century, plants would be introduced and they, feeding on the carbon dioxide, would start to produce oxygen. Once oxygen built up, an ozone layer would (with a bit of luck) start to form, and this would protect organic life from UV radiation. Does this strike you as a mad waste of time and energy? Or, does it represent the future, when humanity gets to colonise other planets? Maggie Zubrin, who co-runs the Mars Society in America, says:


 'I feel very excited about terraforming.

 I think it would be a blessing for humans

 to give such an atmosphere to Mars,

 where life could thrive. Those little Martian

 microbes, if they're still existing,

could develop their potential as well'  (4)




(3) This image was acquired at the Viking Lander 1 site with camera number 1. The large rock just left of centre is about 2 meters wide. This rock was named "Big Joe" by the Viking scientists. The top of the rock is covered with red soil. Those portions of the rock not covered are similar in colour to basaltic rocks on Earth. Therefore, this may be a fragment of a lava flow that was ejected by an impact crater -

(4) - H. Couper and N. Henbest, Mars the Inside story of the Red Planet  2001, p197.

Mars's Iron Grip

Earth is held in place by Mars's Phoenix

The diagram above can be used as a simple method for drawing earth's mean orbit from Mars. Draw a square and mark the centres of the sides; next put circles centred on every corner of the square sized so that each touches its neighbour at the centres of the sides of the square; then put one circle around the whole figure and another inside (shown in heavy line). To draw the relative orbits of Earth and Mars find the centre of the radius of the circumcircle and draw a circle with diameter equal to this radius so that it spans from the centre to the edge of the circumcircle. This is Mars' mean orbit. Earth's mean orbit then is taken from the same centre and just touches the small incircle (heavy line). The accuracy is 99.8%. 

The Crusade

From Mars to Jupiter

A circle is drawn to represent Jupiter's orbit. Four touching circles drawn with centres on this circle leave a space in the middle which can be taken to represent Mars's mean orbit with over 99.9% accuracy. Four touching circles can also be used to accurately space Chiron from Mars when viewed from Earth (not shown but do try it at home). An alternative and much neater way of drawing the two orbits is shown reduced in the bottom right hand corner. Jupiter rules expansion and Mars is characterised by acts of will; as long as there is a good structure to the expansion, normally provided by Saturn, and here symbolised by the square, then this is the stuff of which empires are built. 

A note on accuracy from Nick Kollerstrom:

Here the equation is Ma/Ju = (1 - 1/√2). Taking the mean radii of Mars and Jupiter as 1.5237 and 5.2028, the agreement again comes to within 99.99%. 

Taking this and the construction of 'Venus's Eight Halos' (see 'Venus' page) as given in John Martineau's A BOOK OF COINCIDENCE, fourfold and eightfold, they are both exact to within one part in ten thousand - a whole order of magnitude above the 99.9% there cited!