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Last Updated: Friday, 30 May 2003, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
What is Mars like?
See a Martian sunset and Nasa's Rovers

As robot landers from the US and Europe get set to explore Mars, BBC News Online peers into the heavens to find out more about the conditions they can expect to find on the Red Planet.

Freezing temperatures, immense dust storms and tornadoes much larger than any on Earth await Europe's Beagle 2 lander and Nasa's two Mars Rovers when they finally touch down some time late this year or early in 2004.

Although the planet does not teem with life like Earth, the grand scale of Mars' geology is truly impressive.

It contains the largest mountains in the Solar System and has canyon systems that, if they were on Earth, would stretch from New York to Los Angeles.

With these immense natural wonders on display, it is lucky that the Martian day has an extra 37 minutes to enable data-hungry robots to take everything in.

We already know a great deal about the Martian landscape. Images of its desolate and rocky surface having been beamed back to Earth decades ago.

The first fly-past of the planet by space craft took place in the 1960s and by the end of the 1990s the entire surface had been photographed.

Dead or alive?

The Martian atmosphere is thinner than Earth's and is mostly made up of carbon dioxide, and only a miniscule 0.13 % of it is oxygen.

MARS FACT FILE
Martian landscape
Named after the Roman god of war
Martian year: 687 Earth days
Max distance from Earth, 378 million km
Temperature low: -100C
Temperature high: 0C
Mars has two moons

The gravity is only a fraction of that on Earth, but despite these differences Mars is more like our planet than anywhere else in the Solar System.

This is one reason, no doubt, that a manned mission to Mars looks like a possibility within the next 20 years or so.

Part of the explanation for this lies in the knowledge we still need to acquire. Despite all the information scientists already have about Mars, their appetites have been whetted and they want more.

Did Mars once have massive oceans like those on Earth? Can any life forms, living or dead, be found to prove life on Earth is not alone. And would it ever be possible for humans to settle permanently on another planet?




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