A Billion Years From now There won’t be Much Oxygen in the Earth’s Atmosphere

Breathe it while you still can. A new research study forecasts the future of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and finds grim news. As the sun continues to warm, carbon dioxide will bind to rocks. This will starve plants, and in as little as a billion years they won’t be able to produce enough oxygen to keep our planet habitable (for us).

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Science Fiction Might Be Right After All. There Might Be Breathable Atmospheres Across the Universe

This view of Earth’s horizon was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station, using a wide-angle lens while the Station was over the Pacific Ocean. A new study suggests that Earth's water didn't all come from comets. Credit: NASA

The last few years has seen an explosion of exoplanet discoveries. Some of those worlds are in what we deem the “habitable zone,” at least in preliminary observations. But how many of them will have life-supporting, oxygen-rich atmospheres in the same vein as Earth’s?

A new study suggests that breathable atmospheres might not be as rare as we thought on planets as old as Earth.

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As Meteorites Slice Through the Atmosphere, They’re Sculpted Into Cones

Since it first formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, planet Earth has been subject to impacts by asteroids and plenty of meteors. These impacts have played a significant role in the geological history of our planet and even played a role in species evolution. And while meteors come in many shapes and sizes, scientists have found that many become cone-shaped once they enter our atmosphere.

The reason for this has remained a mystery for some time. But thanks to a recent study conducted by a team of researchers from New York University’s Applied Mathematics Lab have figured out the physics that leads to this transformation. In essence, the process involves melting and erosion that ultimately turns meteorities into the ideal shape as they hurl through the atmosphere.

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Did You Know that the Earth Loses Several Hundred Tons of Atmosphere to Space Every Day?

A pair of sounding rockets took aim at the aurora over Svalbard, Norway, to help scientists understand how Earth's atmosphere loses oxygen into space. Even though it's Earth's day side in the image, the launch location is so far north there's no daylight. Image Credit: Allison Stancil-Ervin of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

Scientists have known for some time that Earth’s atmosphere loses several hundred tons of oxygen each day. They understand how this oxygen loss happens on Earth’s night side, but they’re not sure how it happens on the day side. They do know one thing though; they happen during auroras.

According to a press release from NASA’s Earth Observatory, no two oxygen outflow events are exactly the same, which makes understanding them a challenge. They call the events ‘fountains of gas’ that escape the Earth during auroral activity, and the Earth Observatory has a mission dedicated to understanding them.
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Spinning Heat Shield Concept Could Provide a Lightweight Way to Survive Atmospheric Re-entry

One of the more challenging aspects of space exploration and spacecraft design is planning for re-entry. Even in the case of thinly-atmosphered planets like Mars, entering a planet’s atmosphere is known to cause a great deal of heat and friction. For this reason, spacecraft have always been equipped with heat shields to absorb this energy and ensure that the spacecraft do not crash or burn up during re-entry.

Unfortunately, current spacecraft must rely on huge inflatable or mechanically deployed shields, which are often heavy and complicated to use. To address this, a PhD student from the University of Manchester has developed a prototype for a heat shield that would rely on centrifugal forces to stiffen flexible, lightweight materials. This prototype, which is the first of its kind, could reduce the cost of space travel and facilitate future missions to Mars.

The concept was proposed by Rui Wu, a PhD student from Manchester’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE). He was joined by Peter C.E. Roberts and Carl Driver – a Senior Lecturer in Spacecraft Engineering and a Lecturer at MACE, respectively – and Constantinos Soutis of The University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute.

The CubeSat-sized prototype heat shield designed by the University of Manchester team. Credit: University of Manchester

To put it simply, planets with atmospheres allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down in preparation for landing. This process creates a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures of 10,000 °C (18,000 °F) are generated and the air around the spacecraft can turn into plasma. For this reason, spacecraft require a front-end mounted heat shield that can tolerate extreme heat and is aerodynamic in shape.

When deploying to Mars, the circumstances are somewhat different, but the challenge remains the same. While the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% that of Earth’s – with an average surface pressure of 0.636 kPa compared to Earth’s 101.325 kPa – spacecraft still require heat shields to avoid burnup and carry heavy loads. Wu’s design potentially solves both of these issues.

The prototype’s design, which consists of a skirt-shaped shield designed to spin, seeks to create a heat shield that can accommodate the needs of current and future space missions. As Wu explained:

“Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage… Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage.”

Wu and his colleagues described their concept in a recent study that appeared in the journal Arca Astronautica (titled “Flexible heat shields deployed by centrifugal force“). The design consists of an advanced, flexible material that has a high temperature tolerance and allows for easy-folding and storage aboard a spacecraft. The material becomes rigid as the shield applies centrifugal force, which is accomplished by rotating upon entry.

Wu and his team performing the drop test of their heat shield prototype. Credit: University of Manchester

So far, Wu and his team have conducted a drop test with the prototype from an altitude of 100 m (328 ft) using a balloon (the video of which is posted below). They also conducted a structural dynamic analysis that confirmed that the heat shield is capable of automatically engaging in a sufficient spin rate (6 revolutions per second) when deployed from altitudes of higher than 30 km (18.64 mi) – which coincides with the Earth’s stratosphere.

The team also conducted a thermal analysis that indicated that the heat shield could reduce front end temperatures by 100 K (100 °C; 212 °F) on a CubeSat-sized vehicle without the need for thermal insulation around the shield itself (unlike inflatable structures). The design is also self-regulating, meaning that it does not rely on additional machinery, reducing the weight of a spacecraft even further.

And unlike conventional designs, their prototype is scalable for use aboard smaller spacecraft like CubeSats. By being equipped with such a shield, CubeSats could be recovered after they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, effectively becoming reusable. This is all in keeping with current efforts to make space exploration and research cost-effective, in part through the development of reusable and retrievable parts. As Wu explained:

“More and more research is being conducted in space, but this is usually very expensive and the equipment has to share a ride with other vehicles. Since this prototype is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.”

When it comes time for heavier spacecraft to be deployed to Mars, which will likely involve crewed missions, it is entirely possible that the heat shields that ensure they make it safely to the surface are composed of lightweight, flexible materials that spin to become rigid. In the meantime, this design could enable lightweight and compact entry systems for smaller spacecraft, making CubeSat research that much more affordable.

Such is the nature of modern space exploration, which is all about cutting costs and making space more accessible. And be sure to check out this video from the team’s drop test as well, courtesy of Rui Wui and the MACE team:

Further Reading: University of Manchester, Acta Astronica

About 2.3 Billion Years Ago, a Firehose of Oxygen was Released Into the Atmosphere

Billions of years ago, Earth’s environment was very different from the one we know today. Basically, our planet’s primordial atmosphere was toxic to life as we know it, consisting of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other gases. However, by the Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5–1.6 billion years ago), a dramatic change occurred where oxygen began to be introduced to the atmosphere – known as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE).

Until recently, scientists were not sure if this event – which was the result of photosynthetic bacteria altering the atmosphere – occurred rapidly or not. However, according to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this event was much more rapid than previously thought. Based on newly-discovered geological evidence, the team concluded that the introduction of oxygen to our atmosphere was “more like a fire hose” than a trickle.

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NASA’s Aqua Satellite Watches Ships Crossing the Atlantic Ocean

Earth, when viewed from space, is a pretty spectacular thing to behold. From orbit, one can see every continent, landmass, and major feature. Weather patterns are also eerily clear from space, with everything from hurricanes to auroras appearing as a single system. On top of that, it is only from orbit that the full extent of human activity can be truly appreciated.

For instance, when one hemisphere of Earth passes from day into night, one can see the patchwork of urban development by picking out the filamentary structure of lights. And as NASA’s Aqua satellite recently demonstrated with a high-resolution image it captured over the Atlantic Ocean, ships criss-crossing the ocean can also create some beautiful patterns.

As part of the NASA-centered international Earth Observing System (EOS), the Aqua satellite was launched on May 4th, 2002, to collect information on Earth’s water cycle. Using a suite of six Earth-observing instruments, this satellite has gathered global data on ocean evaporation, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover.

NASA’s Aqua Earth-observing satellite. Credit: NASA

The image was acquired on January 16th, 2018, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Pictured in this image are ships off the coast of Portugal and Spain producing cloud trails known as ship tracks. Some of these tracks stretch for hundreds of kilometers and grow broader with distance – i.e. the narrow ends are the youngest while the broader, wavier ends are older.

These clouds form when water vapor condenses around tiny particles of pollution emitted by the ship’s exhaust. This is due to the fact that some particles generated by ships (like sulfates) are soluble in water and seeds clouds. This also causes light hitting these clouds to scatter in many directions, making them appear brighter and thicker than unpolluted maritime clouds (which are seeded by larger particles like sea salt).

As always, seeing things from space provides an incredible sense of perspective. This is especially helpful when attempting to monitor and model something as complex as Earth’s environment and humanity’s impact on it. And of course, it also allows for some breathtaking photos!

Further Reading: NASA

ESA Discovers Where All The Missing Socks Have Been Going

We here at Earth are fortunate that we have a viable atmosphere, one that is protected by Earth’s magnetosphere. Without this protective envelope, life on the surface would be bombarded by harmful radiation emanating from the Sun. However, Earth’s upper atmosphere is still slowly leaking, with about 90 tonnes of material a day escaping from the upper atmosphere and streaming into space.

And although astronomers have been investigating this leakage for some time, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, how much material is being lost to space, what kinds, and how does this interact with solar wind to influence our magnetic environment? Such has been the purpose of the European Space Agency’s Cluster project, a series of four identical spacecraft that have been measuring Earth’s magnetic environment for the past 15 years.

Understanding our atmosphere’s interaction with solar wind first requires that we understand how Earth’s magnetic field works. For starters, it extends from the interior of our planet (and is believed to be the result of a dynamo effect in the core), and reaches all the way out into space. This region of space, which our magnetic field exerts influence over, is known as the magnetosphere.

The four Cluster spacecraft crossing the northern cusp of Earth's magnetosphere. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab
The four Cluster spacecraft crossing the northern cusp of Earth’s magnetosphere. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

The inner portion of this magnetosphere is called the plasmasphere, a donut-shaped region which extends to a distance of about 20,000 km from the Earth and co-rotates with it. The magnetosphere is also flooded with charged particles and ions that get trapped inside, and then are sent bouncing back and forth along the region’s field lines.

At its forward, Sun-facing edge, the magnetosphere meets the solar wind – a stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun into space. The spot where they make contact is known as the “Bow Shock”, which is so-named because its magnetic field lines force solar wind to take on the shape of a bow as they pass over and around us.

As the solar wind passes over Earth’s magnetosphere, it comes together again behind our planet to form a magnetotail – an elongated tube which contains trapped sheets of plasma and interacting field lines. Without this protective envelope, Earth’s atmosphere would have been slowly stripped away billions of years ago, a fate that is now believed to have befallen Mars.

That being said, Earth’s magnetic field is not exactly hermetically sealed. For example, at our planet’s poles, the field lines are open, which allows solar particles to enter and fill our magnetosphere with energetic particles. This process is what is responsible for Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis (aka. the Northern and Southern Lights).

An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.
An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.

At the same time, particles from Earth’s upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) can escape the same way, traveling up through the poles and being lost to space. Despite learning much about Earth’s magnetic fields and how plasma is formed through its interaction with various particles, much about the whole process has been unclear until quite recently.

As Arnaud Masson, ESA’s Deputy Project Scientist for the Cluster mission stated in an ESA press release:

The question of plasma transport and atmospheric loss is relevant for both planets and stars, and is an incredibly fascinating and important topic. Understanding how atmospheric matter escapes is crucial to understanding how life can develop on a planet. The interaction between incoming and outgoing material in Earth’s magnetosphere is a hot topic at the moment; where exactly is this stuff coming from? How did it enter our patch of space?

Given that our atmosphere contains 5 quadrillion tons of matter (that’s 5 x 1015, or 5,000,000 billion tons), a loss of 90 tons a day doesn’t amount to much. However, this number does not include the mass of “cold ions” that are regularly being added. This term is typically used to described the hydrogen ions that we now know are being lost to the magnetosphere on a regular basis (along with oxygen and helium ions).

Since hydrogen requires less energy to escape our atmosphere, the ions that are created once this hydrogen becomes part of the plasmasphere also have low energy. As a result, they have been very difficult to detect in the past. What’s more, scientists have only known about this flow of oxygen, hydrogen and helium ions – which come from the Earth’s polar regions and replenish plasma in the magnetosphere – for a few decades.

Illustration of ions flowing out from the polar cap towards the magnetotail. Credit: ESA - C. Carreau
Illustration of ions flowing out from the polar cap towards the magnetotail. Credit: ESA – C. Carreau

Prior to this, scientists believed that solar particles alone were responsible for plasma in Earth’s magnetosphere. But in more recent years, they have come to understand that two other sources contribute to the plasmasphere. The first are sporadic “plumes” of plasma that grow within the plasmasphere and travel outwards towards the edge of the magnetosphere, where they interact with solar wind plasma coming the other way.

The other source? The aforementioned atmospheric leakage. Whereas this consists of abundant oxygen, helium and hydrogen ions, the cold hydrogen ions appear to play the most important role. Not only do they constitute a significant amount of matter lost to space, and may play a key role in shaping our magnetic environment. What’s more, most of the satellites currently orbiting Earth are unable to detect the cold ions being added to the mix, something which Cluster is able to do.

In 2009 and in 2013, the Cluster probes were able to characterize their strength, as well as that of other sources of plasma being added to the Earth’s magnetosphere. When only the cold ions are considered, the amount of atmosphere being lost o space amounts to several thousand tons per year. In short, its like losing socks. Not a big deal, but you’d like to know where they are going, right?

This has been another area of focus for the Cluster mission, which for the last decade and a half has been attempting to explore how these ions are lost, where they come from, and the like. As Philippe Escoubet, ESA’s Project Scientist for the Cluster mission, put it:

In essence, we need to figure out how cold plasma ends up at the magnetopause. There are a few different aspects to this; we need to know the processes involved in transporting it there, how these processes depend on the dynamic solar wind and the conditions of the magnetosphere, and where plasma is coming from in the first place – does it originate in the ionosphere, the plasmasphere, or somewhere else?

Color illustration showing the scale of planets in our solar system, focusing on Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: NASA
Color illustration showing the scale of planets in our solar system, focusing on Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: NASA

The reasons for understanding this are clear. High energy particles, usually in the form of solar flares, can pose a threat to space-based technology. In addition, understanding how our atmosphere interacts with solar wind is also useful when it comes to space exploration in general. Consider our current efforts to locate life beyond our own planet in the Solar System. If there is one thing that decades of missions to nearby planets has taught us, it is that a planet’s atmosphere and magnetic environment are crucial in determining habitability.

Within close proximity to Earth, there are two examples of this: Mars, which has a thin atmosphere and is too cold; and Venus, who’s atmosphere is too dense and far too hot. In the outer Solar System, Saturn’s moon Titan continues to intrigue us, mainly because of the unusual atmosphere. As the only body with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere besides Earth, it is also the only known planet where liquid transfer takes place between the surface and the atmosphere – albeit with petrochemicals instead of water.

Moreover, NASA’s Juno mission will spend the next two years exploring Jupiter’s own magnetic field and atmosphere. This information will tell us much about the Solar System’s largest planet, but it is also hoped to shed some light on the history planetary formation in the Solar System.

In the past fifteen years, Cluster has been able to tell astronomers a great deal about how Earth’s atmosphere interacts with solar wind, and has helped to explore magnetic field phenomena that we have only begun to understand. And while there is much more to be learned, scientists agree that what has been uncovered so far would have been impossible without a mission like Cluster.

Further Reading: ESA

What Causes Air Pollution?

By definition, pollution refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In other words, it is what happens when toxins, contaminants, and other harmful products are introduced into an environment, disrupting its normal patterns and functions. When it comes to our atmosphere, pollution refers to the introduction of chemicals, particulates, and biological matter that can be harmful to humans, plants and animals, and cause damage to the natural environment.

Whereas some causes of pollution are entirely natural – being the result of sudden changes in temperature, seasonal changes, or regular cycles – others are the result of human impact (i.e. anthropogenic, or man-made). More and more, the effects of air pollution on our planet, especially those that result from human activity, are of great concern to developers, planners and environmental organizations, given the long-term effect they can have.

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Mars Compared to Earth

At one time, astronomers believed the surface of Mars was crisscrossed by canal systems. This in turn gave rise to speculation that Mars was very much like Earth, capable of supporting life and home to a native civilization. But as human satellites and rovers began to conduct flybys and surveys of the planet, this vision of Mars quickly dissolved, replaced by one in which the Red Planet was a cold, desiccated and lifeless world.

However, over the past few decades, scientists have come to learn a great deal about the history of Mars that has altered this view as well. We now know that though Mars may currently be very cold, very dry, and very inhospitable, this wasn’t always the case. What’s more, we have come to see that even in its current form, Mars and Earth actually have a lot in common.

Between the two planets, there are similarities in size, inclination, structure, composition, and even the presence of water on their surfaces. That being said, they also have a lot of key differences that would make living on Mars, a growing preoccupation among many humans (looking at you, Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp!), a significant challenge. Let’s go over these similarities and the difference in an orderly fashion, shall we?

Sizes, Masses and Orbits:

In terms of their size and mass, Earth and Mars are quite different. With a mean radius of 6371 km and a mass of 5.97×1024 kg, Earth is the fifth largest and fifth most-massive planet in the Solar System, and the largest of the terrestrial planets. Mars, meanwhile, has a radius of approximately 3,396 km at its equator (3,376 km at its polar regions), which is the equivalent of roughly 0.53 Earths. However, it’s mass is just 6.4185 x 10²³ kg, which is around 10.7% that of Earth’s.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
Artistic representation of the orbits of Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

Similarly, Earth’s volume is a hefty 1.08321 x 1012 km3, which works out 1,083 billion cubic kilometers. By comparison, Mars has a volume of 1.6318 x 10¹¹ km³ (163 billion cubic kilometers) which is the equivalent of 0.151 Earths. Between this difference in size, mass, and volume, Mars’s surface gravity is 3.711 m/s², which works out to 37.6% of Earths (0.376 g).

In terms of their orbits, Earth and Mars are also quite different. For instance, Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance (aka. semi-major axis) of 149,598,261 km – or one Astronomical Unit (AU). This orbit has a very minor eccentricity (approx. 0.0167), which means its orbit ranges from 147,095,000 km (0.983 AU) at perihelion to 151,930,000 km (1.015 AU) at aphelion.

At its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion), Mars orbits at a distance of approximately 249,200,000 km (1.666 AU). At perihelion, when it is closest to the Sun, it orbits at a distance of approximately 206,700,000 km (1.3814 AU). At these distances, the Earth has an orbital period of 365.25 days (1.000017 Julian years) while Mars has an orbital period of 686.971 days (1.88 Earth years). 

However, in terms of their sidereal rotation (time it takes for the planet to complete a single rotation on its axis) Earth and Mars are again in the same boat. While Earth takes precisely 23h 56m and 4 s to complete a single sidereal rotation (0.997 Earth days), Mars does the same in about 24 hours and 40 minutes. This means that one Martian day (aka. Sol) is very close to single day on Earth.

Earth's axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Earth’s axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Mars’s axial tilt is very similar to Earth’s, being inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (whereas Earth’s axial tilt is just over 23°). This means that Mars also experiences seasons and temperature variations similar to that of Earth (see below).

Structure and Composition:

Earth and Mars are similar when it comes to their basic makeups, given that they are both terrestrial planets. This means that both are differentiated between a dense metallic core and an overlying mantle and crust composed of less dense materials (like silicate rock). However, Earth’s density is higher than that of Mars – 5.514 g/cm3 compared to 3.93 g/cm³ (or 0.71 Earths) – which indicates that Mars’ core region contains more lighter elements than Earth’s.

Earth’s core region is made up of a solid inner core that has a radius of about 1,220 km and a liquid outer core that extends to a radius of about 3,400 km. Both the inner and outer cores are composed of iron and nickel, with trace amounts of lighter elements, and together, they add to a radius that is as large as Mars itself. Current models of Mars’ interior suggest that its core region is roughly  1,794 ± 65 kilometers (1,115 ± 40 mi) in radius, and is composed primarily of iron and nickel with about 16-17% sulfur.

Both planets have a silicate mantle surrounding their cores and a surface crust of solid material. Earth’s mantle – consisting of an upper mantle of slightly viscous material and a lower mantle that is more solid – is roughly 2,890 km (1,790 mi) thick and is composed of silicate rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium. The Earth’s crust is on average 40 km (25 mi) thick, and is composed of rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium (i.e. igneous rocks) and granite (rich in sodium, potassium, and aluminum).

Artist's impression of the interior of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the interior of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Comparatively, Mars’ mantle is quite thin, measuring some 1,300 to 1,800 kilometers (800 – 1,100 mi) in thickness. Like Earth, this mantle is believed to be composed of silicate rock that are rich in minerals compared to the crust, and to be partially viscous (resulting in convection currents which shaped the surface). The crust, meanwhile, averages about 50 km (31 mi) in thickness, with a maximum of 125 km (78 mi). This makes it about three times as hick as Earth’s crust, relative to the sizes of the two planets.

Ergo, the two planets are similar in composition, owing to their common status as terrestrial planets. And while they are both differentiated between a metallic core and layers of less dense material, there is some variance in terms of how proportionately thick their respective layers are.

Surface Features:

When it comes to the surfaces of Earth and Mars, things once again become a case of contrasts. Naturally, it is the differences that are most apparent when comparing Blue Earth to the Red Planet – as the nicknames would suggest. Unlike other planet’s in our Solar System, the vast majority of Earth is covered in liquid water, about 70% of the surface – or 361.132 million km² (139.43 million sq mi) to be exact.

The surface of Mars is dry, dusty, and covered in dirt that is rich iron oxide (aka. rust, leading to its reddish appearance). However, large concentrations of ice water are known to exist within the polar ice caps – Planum Boreum and Planum Australe. In addition, a permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°, meaning that ice water exists beneath much of the Martian surface. Radar data and soil samples have confirmed the presence of shallow subsurface water at the middle latitudes as well.

As for the similarities, Earth and Mars’ both have terrains that varies considerably from place to place. On Earth, both above and below sea level, there are mountainous features, volcanoes, scarps (trenches), canyons, plateaus, and abyssal plains. The remaining portions of the surface are covered by mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other landforms.

Mars is quite similar, with a surface covered by mountain ranges, sandy plains, and even some of the largest sand dunes in the Solar System. It also has the largest mountain in the Solar System, the shield volcano Olympus Mons, and the longest, deepest chasm in the Solar System: Valles Marineris.

Earth and Mars have also experienced many impacts from asteroids and meteors over the years. However, Mars’ own impact craters are far better preserved, with many dating back billions of years. The reason for this is the low air pressure and lack of precipitation on Mars, which results in a very slow rate of erosion. However, this was not always the case.

Mars has discernible gullies and channels on its surface, and many scientists believe that liquid water used to flow through them. By comparing them to similar features on Earth, it is believed that these were were at least partially formed by water erosion.  Some of these channels are quite large, reaching 2,000 kilometers in length and 100 kilometers in width.

Color mosaic of Mars' greatest mountain, Olympus Mons, viewed from orbit. Credit NASA/JPL
Color mosaic of Mars’ greatest mountain, Olympus Mons, viewed from orbit. Credit NASA/JPL

So while they look quite different today, Earth and Mars were once quite similar. And similar geological processes occurred on both planets to give them the kind of varied terrain they both currently have.

Atmosphere and Temperature:

Atmospheric pressure and temperatures are another way in which Earth and Mars are quite different. Earth has a dense atmosphere composed of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. Mars’ is very thin by comparison, with pressure ranging from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa – which is equivalent to about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Earth’s atmosphere is also primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with trace concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous molecules. Mars’ is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen along with traces of oxygen and water. Recent surveys have also noted trace amounts of methane, with an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb).

Because of this, there is a considerable difference between the average surface temperature on Earth and Mars. On Earth, it is approximately 14°C, with plenty of variation due to geographical region, elevation, and time of year. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F) in the Lut Desert of Iran, while the coldest temperature was -89.2°C (-129°F) at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau.

Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 320 km (200 mi), far above all three layers.) Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Endeavor silhouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere. Credit: NASA
Because of its thin atmosphere and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder, averaging at -46 °C (-51 °F). However, because of its tilted axis and orbital eccentricity, Mars also experiences considerable variations in temperature. These can be seen in the form of a low temperature of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.

The atmosphere of Mars is also quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. The planet also experiences dust storms, which can turn into what resembles small tornadoes. Larger dust storms occur when the dust is blown into the atmosphere and heats up from the Sun.

So basically, Earth has a dense atmosphere that is rich in oxygen and water vapor, and which is generally warm and conducive to life. Mars, meanwhile, is generally very cold, but can become quite warm at times. It’s also quite dry and very dusty.

Magnetic Fields:

When it comes to magnetic fields, Earth and Mars are in stark contrast to each other. On Earth, the dynamo effect created by the rotation of Earth’s inner core, relative to the rotation of the planet, generates the currents which are presumed to be the source of its magnetic field. The presence of this field is of extreme importance to both Earth’s atmosphere and to life on Earth as we know it.

Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Essentially, Earth’s magnetosphere serves to deflect most of the solar wind’s charged particles which would otherwise strip away the ozone layer and expose Earth to harmful radiation. The field ranges in strength between approximately 25,000 and 65,000 nanoteslas (nT), or 0.25–0.65 Gauss units (G).

Today, Mars has weak magnetic fields in various regions of the planet which appear to be the remnant of a magnetosphere. These fields were first measured by the Mars Global Surveyor, which indicated fields of inconsistent strengths measuring at most 1500 nT (~16-40 times less than Earth’s). In the northern lowlands, deep impact basins, and the Tharsis volcanic province, the field strength is very low. But in the ancient southern crust, which is undisturbed by giant impacts and volcanism, the field strength is higher.

This would seem to indicate that Mars had a magnetosphere in the past, and explanations vary as to how it lost it. Some suggest that it was blown off, along with the majority of Mars’ atmosphere, by a large impact during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This impact, it is reasoned, would have also upset the heat flow in Mars’ iron core, arresting the dynamo effect that would have produced the magnetic field.

Another theory, based on NASA’s MAVEN mission to study the Martian atmosphere, has it that Mars’ lost its magnetosphere when the smaller planet cooled, causing its dynamo effect to cease some 4.2 billion years ago. During the next several hundred million years, the Sun’s powerful solar wind stripped particles away from the unprotected Martian atmosphere at a rate 100 to 1,000 times greater than that of today. This in turn is what caused Mars to lose the liquid water that existed on its surface, as the environment to become increasing cold, desiccated, and inhospitable.


Earth and Mars are also similar in that both have satellites that orbit them. In Earth’s case, this is none other than The Moon, our only natural satellite and the source of the Earth’s tides. It’s existence has been known of since prehistoric times, and it has played a major role in the mythological and astronomical traditions of all human cultures. In addition, its size, mass and other characteristics are used as a reference point when assessing other satellites.

The Moon is one of the largest natural satellites in the Solar System and is the second-densest satellite of those whose moons who’s densities are known (after Jupiter’s satellite Io). Its diameter, at 3,474.8 km, is one-fourth the diameter of Earth; and at 7.3477 × 1022 kg, its mass is 1.2% of the Earth’s mass. It’s mean density is 3.3464 g/cm3 , which is equivalent to roughly 0.6 that of Earth. All of this results in our Moon possessing gravity that is about 16.54% the strength of Earth’s (aka. 1.62 m/s2).

The Moon varies in orbit around Earth, going from 362,600 km at perigee to 405,400 km at apogee. And like most known satellites within our Solar System, the Moon’s sidereal rotation period (27.32 days) is the same as its orbital period. This means that the Moon is tidally locked with Earth, with one side is constantly facing towards us while the other is facing away.

Thanks to examinations of Moon rocks that were brought back to Earth, the predominant theory states that the Moon was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago from a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object (known as Theia). This collision created a massive cloud of debris that began circling our planet, which eventually coalesced to form the Moon we see today.

Mars has two small satellites, Phobos and Deimos. These moons were discovered in 1877 by the astronomer Asaph Hall and were named after mythological characters. In keeping with the tradition of deriving names from classical mythology, Phobos and Deimos are the sons of Ares – the Greek god of war that inspired the Roman god Mars. Phobos represents fear while Deimos stands for terror or dread.

Phobos measures about 22 km (14 mi) in diameter, and orbits Mars at a distance of 9,234.42 km when it is at periapsis (closest to Mars) and 9,517.58 km when it is at apoapsis (farthest). At this distance, Phobos is below synchronous altitude, which means that it takes only 7 hours to orbit Mars and is gradually getting closer to the planet. Scientists estimate that in 10 to 50 million years, Phobos could crash into Mars’ surface or break up into a ring structure around the planet.

Meanwhile, Deimos measures about 12 km (7.5 mi) and orbits the planet at a distance of 23,455.5 km (periapsis) and 23,470.9 km (apoapsis). It has a longer orbital period, taking 1.26 days to complete a full rotation around the planet. Mars may have additional moons that are smaller than 50- 100 meters (160 to 330 ft) in diameter, and a dust ring is predicted between Phobos and Deimos.

Scientists believe that these two satellites were once asteroids that were captured by the planet’s gravity. The low albedo and the carboncaceous chondrite composition of both moons – which is similar to asteroids – supports this theory, and Phobos’ unstable orbit would seem to suggest a recent capture. However, both moons have circular orbits near the equator, which is unusual for captured bodies.

So while Earth has a single satellite that is quite large and dense, Mars has two satellites that are small and orbit it at a comparatively close distance. And whereas the Moon was formed from Earth’s own debris after a rather severe collision, Mars’ satellites were likely captured asteroids.


Okay, let’s review. Earth and Mars have their share of similarities, but also some rather stark differences.

Mean Radius:                6,371 km                      3,396 km

Mass:                                59.7×1023 kg              6.42 x 10²³ kg

Volume:                           10.8 x 1011 km3         1.63 x 10¹¹ km³

Semi-Major Axis:         0.983 – 1.015 AU      1.3814 – 1.666 AU

Air Pressure:                 101.325 kPa                0.4 – 0.87 kPa

Gravity:                            9.8 m/s²                     3.711 m/s²

Avg. Temperature:      14°C (57.2 °F)            -46 °C (-51 °F)

Temp. Variations:       ±160 °C (278°F)        ±178 °C (320°F)

Axial Tilt:                          23°                               25.19°

Length of Day:               24 hours                     24h 40m

Length of Year:             365.25 days                686.971 days

Water:                              Plentiful                      Intermittent (mostly frozen)

Polar Ice Caps:               Yep                              Yep

In short, compared to Earth, Mars is a pretty small, dry, cold, and dusty planet. It has comparatively low gravity, very little atmosphere and no breathable air. And the years are also mighty long, almost twice that of Earth, in fact. However, the planet does have its fair share of water (albeit mostly in ice form), has seasonal cycles similar to Earth, temperature variations that are similar, and a day that is almost as long.

All of these factors will have to be addressed if ever human beings want to live there. And whereas some can be worked with, others will have to be overcome or adapted to. And for that, we will have to lean pretty heavily on our technology (i.e. terraforming and geoengineering). Best of luck to those who would like to venture there someday, and who do not plan on coming home!

We have written many articles about Mars here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about how difficult it will be to land large payloads onto the surface of Mars, and here’s an article about the Mars methane mystery.

And here are some on the distance between Earth and Mars, Mars’ gravity, and if humans can live on Mars.

If you’d like more info on Mars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and here’s a link to the NASA Mars Exploration home page.

And be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration: Earth and Mars Comparison Chart

We have recorded several podcasts just about Mars. Including Episode 52: Mars and Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.