Martian Soil….sort of

I’m holding Martian soil!…..well…not really. but sort-of..

When you say ‘the Red Planet,’ most people will know you’re talking about Mars. The surface of Mars is a lovely reddish brown, reminiscent of the beaches in Prince Edward Island, Canada (I highly recommend visiting there, it’s beautiful). The colour of the soil on both Mars and in PEI is due to the same thing: rust. The physical process that creates rust is called oxidation, which is when an atom/molecule/ion increases its oxidation state (this has to do with the charge, positive or negative, of the atom/molecule/ion). Rust forms when the iron abundant in the soil is oxidized by oxygen, to form Iron-Oxide (of which there are many kinds: FeO, Fe2O3, Fe3O4, etc.). The oxidation of iron by oxygen is typically found in wet environments, indicating Mars had a warmer and wetter history.

The difference between Mars and PEI is we can’t study Martian soil up close here on Earth. We can either study it by satellites in Mars orbit, or we use our rovers like Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity).

In order to try and do research here on Earth, scientists will create a ‘regolith analog;’ a simulant of the soil of another world, based on our observations and samples of it. There has been much research and development to create both Lunar and Mars soil analogs. In the case of the moon, we benefit from having many lunar samples from the Apollo program. In order to create Martian simulant, we use only that which we’ve learned from satellites and rovers (and I suppose Martian meteorites).

Here, I’m holding a sample of JSC Mars-1 (developed by Allen et al. 1997), a Martian regolith simulant developed for education and scientific research. This dirt is both chemically and spectroscopically similar to Martian soil, as well as the same in grain size, volatile content, density, and magnetic properties. Sample provided by John Moores (@arcticsaxifrage).

Martian Time

Here on Earth, we have a 24 hour day. That is, if the sun were directly overhead, it would take 24 hours to come back to the same point (known as a ‘solar day,’ a ‘sidereal day’ is slightly shorter). The day the amount of time it takes our planet to rotate once on its axis. The rate of spin is a result of literally billions of years of formation and evolution. Our Earth most likely started out as a small chunk of debris in a large dust field around a relatively young proto-star. Over time, it amassed more material using gravity. Spinning objects react to changes in mass distribution. Think of a figure skater who pulls their arms in to spin faster (you can also have a lot of fun doing this on an office rolley char!).

As the planet grew in the early stages of the solar system, more material fell onto Earth, constantly changing the mass and distribution thereof. The 24 hour day we have now didn’t happen over night. And to complicate the matter further, our day is not a constant number. The Moon has a strong influence on the Earth, at this very moment it is gradually slowing us down. Our day is getting longer! But not very quickly. Earthquakes even have an effect, changing the distribution of mass on Earth, and thus changing its rate of spin.

One can see there are a multitude of different variables that would go into the rate of spin of a planet: density of debris it evolved in, type  of material present, amount of impacts in ‘modern’ times, presence of a large moon, amount of tectonic activity, …to name a few. What are the chances, then, that Earth and Mars have a day almost exactly the same length!

Earth day = 24 hours

Martian day = 24 hours and 40 min

Crazy!  Mars is about half the size of us, has no large moons, very little active plate tectonics (though it does occur, and definitely HAS occurred in the past), and it has a density of 3.93 g/cm^3 (compared to Earth’s 5.5 g/cm^3).  All these differences that could potentially play a large role in the length of day on Mars and yet…only 40 min off (2% different).  Interesting.

All the above spawned from me enjoying the Mac app ‘Mars24 Sunclock app‘ that I found while reading Alan Cross’s tweets (@alancross).  It is an app that gives you an actual mars clock!  telling you what part of the planet is day and what part is night, what the local time is for various places (for instance Curiosity)!It’s 11:09pm EDT for me, but 09:45am for Curiosity. The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is in the middle of night at the moment, at 11:35p.

Curiosity Rover: 7 min of Terror

NASA has produced a really intense video describing the Entry, Decent, and Landing of Curiosity on 6 Aug 2012 (1:30am EDT). All probes landing on mars have to go through some form of EDL, this is a description of the specific tactics being used for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover

Book Review: The Mars Trilogy


Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars; collectively known as the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.  It has taken me a while to read all three of these books, mostly due to my schedule not permitting a lot of recreational reading.  But I’ve finally gotten through the three of them, and I’m a little sad to see it end!  These 3 books were unbelievably good.


I HIGHLY recommend reading these three.  They’re in the genre of Science Fiction; in a similar style to Michael Crichton (author of Jurrasic Park, among many others).  Meaning, a strong consideration is given to the actual science behind what’s happening. But there is a lot more than cool science going on in these books.


In short, these three novels tell the tale of the colonization of mars by Humans.  That really should be enough to entice you, but I find I can’t stop talking about it, so I’ll give you a little more.  The main plots of the books follow the First Hundred.  In Red Mars, the First Hundred were the original people sent to mars for a permanent settlement (not the first people on mars, the first settlers of mars).  100 brave souls were chosen, composed of top scientists, engineers, pilots, leaders, etc.


These books tackle so many interesting issues, the biggest of course being terraforming: the act of changing the conditions on the surface of mars to be more liveable for humans.  This means raising the temperature, thickening the atmosphere, providing the right gases, creating topsoil, ….the list goes on.  Not only do the books cover the technological aspects of doing it, but questions the very idea of doing it.  Do you humans have the right to change mars as they see fit?


Mars quickly grows in population, and faces many of the same issues the Europeans did when they came to the Americas, ruling without representation.  Mars needs to become its own planet, its own self.  The storylines cover racism, psychology, morality, oppression, POLITICS, science, immortality…and more.


There is so much in these three books, I’ll almost certainly read them again in the future.


happy reading!