Mars photographed in 2003 by the Hubble Space Telescope

The red planet has interested people as a possible place for extra-terrestrial life for centuries now. It has loads of interesting geology, and its conditions could allow life to exist, although it wouldn’t be easy!

Mars photographed in 2003, on its closest approach to Earth for 60,000 years!

We’ve been exploring Mars for more than 50 years, although it’s important to remember that about half of all the rockets we’ve sent there have crashed or failed. Even visiting one of the nearest planets is very difficult. One mission that survived and is still exploring Mars is NASA’s Curiosity rover.

Curiosity rover on Mars in May 2019.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity has travelled over a large area of the dusty, rocky surface of Mars. Below, you can see its view of an area called The Kimberley, and a video of Curiosity’s journey across Gale Crater.

This image taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover just north of the "Kimberley" waypoint shows beds of sandstone inclined to the southwest toward Mount Sharp and away from the Gale Crater rim. The inclination of the beds indicates build-out of sediment toward Mount Sharp. These inclined beds are interpreted as the deposits of small deltas fed by rivers flowing down from the crater rim to the north and building out into a lake to the south, where Mount Sharp is now.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mars factfile 
Position from the sun4th planet
Diameter 6780 km
Distance from sun228,000,000 km
Day length 24.6 hours
Year length 687 days
Number of moons2
Surface temperature-153 °C to 20 °C
Gravity3.71 m/s2
AtmosphereCarbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon
FUN FACT: Dust storms on Mars sometimes cover the entire planet!

The two activities on this page take us back over 100 years, to a time when people had not yet learnt much about Mars. It was an exciting time to be studying and learning, using new more powerful telescopes than anyone had used before. Many writers and artists imagined weird and wonderful landscapes and societies that might live on the red planet.

Activity 1 – Canals on Mars?

Sketch of Mars and its canals by Schiaparelli

One of the most obsessive astronomers was the American Percival Lowell. He spent many years studying Mars and wrote a number of books about the planet and about life on Mars. He was inspired in part by the observations of Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who drew this map of canals on Mars in 1888.

American astronomer Percival Lowell using a large telescope to observe Venus.

Lowell built an observatory in Arizona which is one of the most important historical observatories in the world – it’s where they discovered Pluto in 1930. In this photo from 1914, he is observing Venus.

Imagine you are Percival Lowell in 1893 and write a diary about your thoughts about the canals and life on Mars and your idea to build an observatory to investigate further. You can research more information to help you write your diary entry by looking at these online resources:

Activity 2 – Fairies on Mars?

In 1923, William Timlin, from Ashington in Northumberland, published The Ship that Sailed to Mars. It’s an incredible fantasy story, beautifully written and illustrated – “it is today one of the rarest, most original and beautiful children’s books of the 20th century” – the only book Timlin ever published.

Write your own fantasy story about a journey to Mars, to meet the strange inhabitants there. Include drawings to illustrate your story.

You can go to the previous secret pages by clicking the planets below.

The MoonVenusMercury
Moon landing sites for Apollo missions
The Sun
An image of the Sun in 2018 when it had no sunspots.