Atmosphere on Mars, seen from space. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Astronomy, Guide to Space

Color of Mars

5 Jun , 2008 by

Mars is famous for its red color. Even back in ancient times, the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans associated Mars with their gods of war, since its red color reminded them of blood.

Mars gets its red color because the planet’s soil is rich in iron oxide. Where did all this iron come from? Scientists have two theories.

One idea is that early Mars was covered with water, which could have worn away ancient rocks rich with water. This iron could have been transported across the planet through rain, and then, when the waters went away, the iron remained.

Another idea is that iron comes from meteorites. You just have to look at the surface of Mars and see the numerous craters to know that the planet has been pounded by space rocks for billions of years. some of these would have been mostly iron in composition. These would have scattered iron around the planet as they crashed into the surface and exploded in the atmosphere.

Determining the exact color of Mars is actually pretty difficult. This is because spacecraft and rovers capture false color images of Mars, which are then color-corrected on computer back on Earth. Different scientists have mixed the colors differently to produce different ideas of what Mars might look like. In fact, the earliest images released by the Viking Lander were colored with blue skies, instead of the more familiar red we know today.

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy has a great article on this. And there’s a classic article about the techniques scientists use to determine color on Mars over at Discover magazine.

NASA’s Mars Exploration rovers are equipped with a special color calibration targets which engineers know the true colors for. They can then take images with these in view, and then color correct the images on computer. If the colors on the rover are correct, then the scientists assume the rest of the colors in the image are correct too.

Here’s a comprehensive article from Universe Today about how scientists go about determining true color on another planet, or in deep space. It’s a fascinating process.

Here are the first color views of Mars from the Mars Phoenix Lander, and the same from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Mars at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

NASA Solar System Exploration: Mars
NASA, Mars: The Red Planet

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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