The Moon and Mercury are geologically dead. In contrast, the larger terrestrial planets—Earth, Venus, and Mars—are more active and interesting worlds. We have already discussed Earth, and we now turn to Venus and Mars. These are the nearest planets and the most accessible to spacecraft. Not surprisingly, the greatest effort in planetary exploration has been devoted to these fascinating worlds. In the chapter, we discuss some of the results of more than four decades of scientific exploration of Mars and Venus. Mars is exceptionally interesting, with evidence that points to habitable conditions in the past. Even today, we are discovering things about Mars that make it the most likely place where humans might set up a habitat in the future. However, our robot explorers have clearly shown that neither Venus nor Mars has conditions similar to Earth. How did it happen that these three neighboring terrestrial planets have diverged so dramatically in their evolution?
- 10.1: The Nearest Planets - An Overview
- Venus, the nearest planet, is a great disappointment through the telescope because of its impenetrable cloud cover. Mars is more tantalizing, with dark markings and polar caps. Early in the twentieth century, it was widely believed that the “canals” of Mars indicated intelligent life there. Mars has only 11% the mass of Earth, but Venus is nearly our twin in size and mass. Mars rotates in 24 hours and has seasons like Earth; Venus has a retrograde rotation period of 243 days.
- 10.2: The Geology of Venus
- Venus has been mapped by radar, especially with the Magellan spacecraft. Its crust consists of 75% lowland lava plains, numerous volcanic features, and many large coronae, which are the expression of subsurface volcanism. The planet has been modified by widespread tectonics driven by mantle convection, forming complex patterns of ridges and cracks and building high continental regions such as Ishtar. The surface is extraordinarily inhospitable, with pressure of 90 bars and temperature of 730 K.
- 10.3: The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
- The atmosphere of Venus is 96% CO2. Thick clouds at altitudes of 30 to 60 kilometers are made of sulfuric acid, and a CO2greenhouse effect maintains the high surface temperature. Venus presumably reached its current state from more earthlike initial conditions as a result of a runaway greenhouse effect, which included the loss of large quantities of water.
- 10.4: The Geology of Mars
- Most of what we know about Mars is derived from spacecraft: highly successful orbiters, landers, and rovers. We have also been able to study a few martian rocks that reached Earth as meteorites. Mars has heavily cratered highlands in its southern hemisphere, but younger, lower volcanic plains over much of its northern half. The Tharsis bulge, as big as North America, includes several huge volcanoes; Olympus Mons is more than 20 kilometers high and 500 kilometers in diameter.
- 10.5: Water and Life on Mars
- The martian atmosphere has a surface pressure of less than 0.01 bar and is 95% CO2. It has dust clouds, water clouds, and carbon dioxide (dry ice) clouds. Liquid water on the surface is not possible today, but there is subsurface permafrost at high latitudes. Seasonal polar caps are made of dry ice; the northern residual cap is water ice, whereas the southern permanent ice cap is made predominantly of water ice with a covering of carbon dioxide ice.
- 10.6: Divergent Planetary Evolution
- Earth, Venus, and Mars have diverged in their evolution from what may have been similar beginnings. We need to understand why if we are to protect the environment of Earth.
Thumbnail: This May 2004 image shows the tracks made by the Mars Exploration Spirit rover on the surface of the red planet. Spirit was active on Mars between 2004 and 2010, twenty times longer than its planners had expected. It “drove” over 7.73 kilometers in the process of examining the martian landscape. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL/Cornell).
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).