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The red dust is actually iron oxide. Imagine rust-colored talcum powder, and you’ll get the picture. Everything, from the ground to the little stones, to the rocks, are covered with this iron oxide dust.
Since Mars has neither water nor any confirmed tectonic activity, its geological features remain practically unaltered. By comparison, Earth’s surface experiences constant change due to water-induced erosion and tectonic activities.
From the majestic mountains like Mount Everest and K-2 of the Himalayas to the darkest depths of Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, the prominent geological features that we see now on the Earth’s surface were brought about by the movement of tectonic plates.
The Mars landscape has its own share of imposing geological structures. In fact it is home to the highest known mountain in the entire Solar System, Olympus Mons. That’s not all. The largest known canyon in the Solar System, Valles Marineris, is also found on the surface of the Red Planet.
Scientists are not however certain whether these structures were formed through plate tectonics … or whether there are or were in fact any plate tectonic activities that shaped the Mars landscape in the past. The possibility, however, has not been totally dismissed.
On March 2007, the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express was able to take snapshots of what appeared like tectonic signatures on Aeolis Mensae, a region along the border separating the northern plains and the southern highlands.
Since Mars has nearly the same tilt as the Earth’s and also has an atmosphere, seasons are also existent there. There are violent dust storms on the surface, and these are the ones most responsible for the few changes that occur on Mars’ terrain.
There are however traces of water, and at least some land features that may have been shaped by water. In addition to that, the Opportunity rover was able to capture images of clouds of water-ice back in 2004.
Among all the geological features on the Mars landscape, perhaps the most widely (and wildly) publicized are the mesas of Cydonia. A mesa is an elevated flat land (like a plateau) with steep sides. Early pictures of Cedonia revealed what appeared to be a human face. Not far from it was a vast expanse of relatively smooth land, just like the bottom of an ocean.
Since it is common for settlements to be found near bodies of water, the image naturally spurred theories of ancient civilizations on Mars.
Enjoy a NASA article about the face on Mars, and information on the Mars face from the MSSS team.
Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.