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The Unearthly Geology of Mars

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By Dr. Edward F. Albin
Faculty Member, Space Studies at American Public University

Mars has become the focus of intense exploration in recent years, making the offering of our new Geology of Mars course very relevant at this time. For instance, the Curiosity Rover (that landed in August of 2012) now explores the Martian surface while orbiting above is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with its high resolution imaging cameras.  These robot explorers are just the latest attempts at uncovering the secrets of the “fourth” planet.  In the post Space Shuttle era, NASA is now reconfiguring its efforts to return to deep space — not only to explore asteroids and return to the Moon, but most importantly to land humans on Mars. It is the spotlight of our national space program, and hardware (Orion Capsule and the Space Launch System) is now being built to achieve this goal for our country.

Of all of the planets in our Solar System, Mars is more like Earth than any other.  Even in the absence of life, Mars is a planet of geologic wonders.  More than a dozen volcanoes, larger than any found on Earth, populate the planet. One such volcano, Olympus Mons, is wider than the state of Arizona and three times taller than Mount Everest. The planet also sports Valles Marineris, the Grand Canyon of Mars — as long as the distance from New York to San Francisco. Mars has large impact basins, such as Hellas and ubiquitous impact craters. Perhaps the most fascinating features found on Mars are its dry river channels — evidence that water flowed across the surface in the past.

Mars has a long history of piquing the curiosity and interest of humankind.  Ancient Greek stargazers associated the red planet with their god of war, Ares. Telescope users of the nineteenth century saw what they thought were canals strewn across the surface. Early twentieth century science fiction writers wrote about an inhabited Mars. The quest for discovering life on Mars continues to this day, but from a scientific viewpoint. The red planet has water in the form of polar ice caps and subsurface permafrost.  Evidence suggests that Mars was once an earth-like planet — with a thick and warm atmosphere, rivers, oceans, and perhaps even life. Although microbial life cannot be ruled out, there may be fossil evidence of ancient life that may one day be uncovered by future astronaut geologists.

Mars will be the first planet beyond Earth to be explored in person by humankind.  It is the new focus of NASA’s manned spaceflight program.  Innovative rockets, capsules, and landers are now being designed and built in order to take humanity to the red planet.   Colonization of Mars will play an important role in disseminating our species elsewhere within the Solar System, ensuring the ultimate long-term survival of our species.  While on Mars, astronauts will be able to search first hand for evidence of current and past life on another world. One thing is for certain — the dusty soil of Mars will soon (within our lifetime) have boot-prints made by our astronauts.

The Master of Science in Space Studies program at APU is devoted to the study of the political, economic, commercial, scientific and operational issues associated with the exploration and commercial/military use of space. The program develops well-rounded scholars ready to face both the current and future challenges associated with humankind’s exploration and use of the space environment.


About the Author:

Dr. Albin is an adjunct professor in the Department of Space Studies. He has been involved in the field of Space Science for more than 25 years as an instructor of planetary science / astronomy at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia. His research interests include the study of meteorites and impact craters, with special emphasis on the study of the geology of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids.

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