The Orbit of Mars. How Long is a Year on Mars?

Mars and Earth have quite a few things in common. Both are terrestrial planets, both are located within the Sun’s habitable zone, both have polar ice caps, similarly tilted axes, and similar variations in temperature. And according to some of the latest scientific data obtained by rovers and atmospheric probes, it is now known that Mars once had a dense atmosphere and was covered with warm, flowing water.

But when it comes to things like the length of a year, and the length of seasons, Mars and Earth are quite different. Compared to Earth, a year on Mars lasts almost twice as long – 686.98 Earth days. This is due to the fact that Mars is significantly farther from the Sun and its orbital period (the time it takes to orbit the Sun) is significantly greater than that of Earth’s.

Orbital Period:

Mars average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 227,939,200 km (141,634,852.46 mi) which is roughly one and half times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1.52 AU). Compared to Earth, its orbit is also rather eccentric (0.0934 vs. 0.0167), ranging from 206.7 million km (128,437,425.435 mi; 1.3814 AU) at perihelion to 249.2 million km (154,845,701 mi; 1.666 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, and with an orbital speed of 24.077 km/s, Mars takes 686.971 Earth days, the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years, to complete a orbit around the Sun.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA

This eccentricity is one of the most pronounced in the Solar System, with only Mercury having a greater one (0.205). However, this wasn’t always the case. Roughly 1.35 million years ago, Mars had an eccentricity of just 0.002, making its orbit nearly circular. It reached a minimum eccentricity of 0.079 some 19,000 years ago, and will peak at about 0.105 in about 24,000 years from now.

But for the last 35,000 years, the orbit of Mars has been getting slightly more eccentric because of the gravitational effects of the other planets. The closest distance between Earth and Mars will continue to mildly decrease for the next 25,000 years. And in about 1,000,000 years from now, its eccentricity will once again be close to what it is now – with an estimated eccentricity of 0.01.

Earth Days vs. Martian “Sols”:

Whereas a year on Mars is significantly longer than a year on Earth, the difference between an day on Earth and a Martian day (aka. “Sol”) is not significant. For starters, Mars takes 24 hours 37 minutes and 22 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis (aka. a sidereal day), where Earth takes just slightly less (23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds).

On the other hand, it takes 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds for the Sun to appear in the same spot in the sky above Mars (aka. a solar day), compared to the 24 hour solar day we experience here on Earth. This means that, based on the length of a Martian day, a Martian year works out to 668.5991 Sols.

The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun's movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU
The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun’s movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU

Seasonal Variations:

Mars also has a seasonal cycle that is similar to that of Earth’s. This is due in part to the fact that Mars also has a tilted axis, which is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of approx. 23.44°). It’s also due to Mars orbital eccentricity, which means it will periodically receive less in the way of the Sun’s radiance during at one time of the year than another. This change in distance causes significant variations in temperature.

While the planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), this ranges from a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator. This works out to a variation in average surface temperature that is quite similar to Earth’s – a difference of 178 °C (320.4 °F) versus 145.9 °C (262.5 °F). This high in temperatures is also what allows for liquid water to still flow (albeit intermittently) on the surface of Mars.

In addition, Mars’ eccentricity means that it travels more slowly in its orbit when it is further from the Sun, and more quickly when it is closer (as stated in Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion). Mars’ aphelion coincides with Spring in its northern hemisphere, which makes it the longest season on the planet – lasting roughly 7 Earth months. Summer is second longest, lasting six months, while Fall and Winter last 5.3 and just over 4 months, respectively.

Artist's impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit: britannica.com
Artist’s impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit: britannica.com

In the south, the length of the seasons is only slightly different. Mars is near perihelion when it is summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north, and near aphelion when it is winter in the southern hemisphere and summer in the north. As a result, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are more extreme and the seasons in the northern are milder. The summer temperatures in the south can be up to 30 K (30 °C; 54 °F) warmer than the equivalent summer temperatures in the north.

Weather Patterns:

These seasonal variations allow Mars to experience some extremes in weather. Most notably, Mars has the largest dust storms in the Solar System. These can vary from a storm over a small area to gigantic storms (thousands of km in diameter) that cover the entire planet and obscure the surface from view. They tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and have been shown to increase the global temperature.

The first mission to notice this was the Mariner 9 orbiter, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971, it sent pictures back to Earth of a world consumed in haze. The entire planet was covered by a dust storm so massive that only Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano that measures 24 km high, could be seen above the clouds. This storm lasted for a full month, and delayed Mariner 9‘s attempts to photograph the planet in detail.

And then on June 9th, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm in the Hellas Basin on Mars. By July, the storm had died down, but then grew again to become the largest storm in 25 years. So big was the storm that amateur astronomers using small telescopes were able to see it from Earth. And the cloud raised the temperature of the frigid Martian atmosphere by a stunning 30° Celsius.

These storms tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and are the result of temperatures rising and triggering changes in the air and soil. As the soil dries, it becomes more easily picked up by air currents, which are caused by pressure changes due to increased heat. The dust storms cause temperatures to rise even further, leading to Mars’ experiencing its own greenhouse effect.

Given the differences in seasons and day length, one is left to wonder if a standard Martian calendar could ever be developed. In truth, it could, but it would be a bit of a challenge. For one, a Martian calendar would have to account for Mars’ peculiar astronomical cycles, and our own non-astronomical cycles like the 7-day week work with them.

Another consideration in designing a calendar is accounting for the fractional number of days in a year. Earth’s year is 365.24219 days long, and so calendar years contain either 365 or 366 days accordingly. Such a formula would need to be developed to account for the 668.5921-sol Martian year. All of this will certainly become an issue as human beings become more and more committed to exploring (and perhaps colonizing) the Red Planet.

We have written many interesting articles about Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, How Long is a Year on Neptune?, How Long is a Year on Pluto?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Mars.

Astronomy Cast also has several interesting episodes on the subject. Like Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

How Long Does it Take Mars to Orbit the Sun?

Given it’s similarities to Earth, Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s Twin”. Like Earth, Mars is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed largely of silicate rock and minerals that are differentiated into a core, mantle and crust. It is also located within the Sun’s “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. habitable zone), has polar ice caps, and once had flowing water on its surface. But beyond these, Mars and Earth are very different worlds.

In addition to their stark contrasts in temperature, surface conditions, and exposure to harmful radiation, Mars also takes a significantly longer time to complete a single orbit of the Sun. In fact, a year on Mars is almost twice as long as a year here on Earth – lasting 686.971 days, which works out to about 1.88 Earth years. And in the course of that orbit, the planet undergoes some rather interesting changes.

Continue reading “How Long Does it Take Mars to Orbit the Sun?”

How Long is a Day on Mars?

Mars represents something of a conundrum for scientists. In many respects, it is significantly different from Earth. It’s cold, it’s dry, there is little  atmosphere or precipitation to speak of, and nothing grows there. By our standards, that makes it an incredibly inhospitable place. And yet, in many other respects, it is quite similar to our world.

For instance, Mars’ internal structure is differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. It also has plenty of water, though the majority of it is concentrated in the polar regions as water ice (and as a permanent layer of permafrost under much of the surface). But perhaps most striking of all, a day on Mars is almost the same as a day here on Earth.

In fact, a day on Mars is roughly 40 minutes longer than a day is here on Earth. Compared to other bodies in our Solar System where a day is either incredibly short (Jupiter’s rotates once on its axis every 9 hours, 55 minutes and 29.69 seconds) or incredibly long (a day on Venus lasts for 116 days and 18 hours), this similarity is quite astounding.

However, there are some things that need to be addressed before we go about declaring just how long a day is on another planet. In fact, there are two ways to determine the length of a day on a celestial body, the sidereal day and the solar day; both of which are used by astronomers for determining the passage on time.

Sidereal vs. Solar:

By definition, a sidereal day on Mars is the length of time that it takes the planet to rotate once on its axis so that stars appear in the same place in the night sky. On Earth, this takes exactly 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds. In comparison, on Mars, a sidereal day lasts 24 hours, 37 minutes, and 22 seconds.

The solar day, by contrast, is the time it takes for the Earth to rotate on its axis so that the Sun appears in the same position in the sky. This position changes slightly each day, but on Earth, a mean solar day works out to being 24 hours long. On Mars, a solar day lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. Rounding that out, we say that a day here on Earth works out to an even 24 hours while on Mars, a day lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes.

Want to know about some other interesting similarities Mars has with Earth? Read on!

Seasonal Changes:

Mars also has a seasonal cycle that is similar to that of Earth’s. This is due in part to the fact that Mars also has a tilted axis, which is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of approx. 23.44°). It’s also due to Mars orbital eccentricity, which mean that it ranges in distance from 206.7  million to 249.2 million kilometers from the Sun.

This change in distance causes significant variations in temperature. While the planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), this ranges from a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator. This high in temperatures is what allows for liquid water to still flow, albeit intermittently, on the surface of Mars.

It also snows on Mars. In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Lander found water ice in the polar regions of the planet. This was an expected finding, but scientists were not prepared to observe snow falling from clouds. The snow, combined with soil chemistry experiments, led scientists to believe that the landing site had a wetter and warmer climate in the past.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit is what causes some significant variations in temperature. Credit: NASA

And then in 2012, data obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that carbon-dioxide snowfalls occur in the southern polar region of Mars. For decades, scientists have known that carbon-dioxide ice is a permanent part of Mars’ seasonal cycle and exists in the southern polar caps. But this was the first time that such a phenomena was detected, and it remains the only known example of carbon-dioxide snow falling anywhere in our solar system.

In addition, recent surveys conducted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Science Laboratory, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and the Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers have revealed some startling things about Mars’ deep past.

For starters, soil samples and orbital observation have demonstrated conclusively that roughly 3.7 billion years ago, the planet had more water on its surface than is currently in the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly, atmospheric studies conducted on the surface and from space have proven that Mars also had a viable atmosphere at that time, one which was slowly stripped away by solar wind.

Weather Patterns:

Like Earth, Mars can have some pretty extreme weather. In the Red Planet’s case, this takes the form of dust storms that can dominated the surface from time to time. These storms have been known to grow to be thousands of kilometers across, occasionally encircling the entire planet and covering everything in a thick haze of dust. When these storms become that large, they prevent direct observation of the Martian surface.

Case in point: when the Mariner 9 orbiter became the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971, it sent pictures back to Earth of a world consumed in haze. The entire planet was covered by a dust storm so massive that only Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano that measures 24 km high, could be seen above the clouds. This storm lasted for a full month, and delayed Mariner 9‘s attempts to photograph the planet in detail.

And then on June 9th, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm in the Hellas Basin on Mars. By July, the storm had died down, but then grew again to become the largest storm in 25 years. So big was the storm that amateur astronomers using small telescopes were able to see it from Earth. And the cloud raised the temperature of the frigid Martian atmosphere by a stunning 30° Celsius.

Therein lies another thing Mars has in common with Earth – global warming! Much like warming trends here on Earth, warming on Mars is caused by the presence of particulate matter in the air that absorbs energy from the Sun and radiates it outward into the atmosphere. causing average temperatures to rise.

These storms tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and are the result of temperatures rising and triggering changes in the air and soil. As the soil dries, it becomes more easily picked up by air currents, which are caused by pressure changes due to increased heat. The dust storms cause temperatures to rise even further, so you could say Mars has a “greenhouse effect” of its own!

As you have probably concluded from all the facts listed above, Mars can be a harsh and volatile planet. Just knowing the answer to ”how long is a day on Mars?” only provides a small glimpse of what is going on there. At the end of the day (no pun intended!) there is plenty happening on Mars that makes it similar enough to Earth that many people are actually contemplating living there someday. And knowing exactly what sets Mars apart, and what we can work with, will be intrinsic to making that happen!

We have written many interesting articles about Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s one about Mars Compared to Earth, the time it takes to get to Mars, how strong the gravity is on Mars, and how many moons Mars has.

Want more information? Learn about living on Mars time, which can you do by consulting NASA’s clock for calculating Martian time.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, Astronomy Cast has some episodes about the Red Planet, like Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.