You're reading


Few places possess a more mystical pull than this rust-red rock, 34 million miles (54.6 million kilometres) away. Even thousands of years ago, ancient civilisations were speculating about what might be up there (hint: it usually had something to do with fire or blood).

But step beyond the legend and you’ll find strange icy lands that transcend your wildest imaginings, with stark plateaux, windswept deserts, prehistoric craters, towering volcanoes and dune fields the size of Luxembourg, all wrapped up in a generous coating of pervasive dust the consistency of talcum powder. This is a destination where it never rains (it can’t, since all water is instantly vaporised), the greenhouse effect is a good thing and you’re guaranteed not to bump into your boss.

On Mars, sunsets are a shimmering blue and the Earth is nothing more than a marbled dot among the stars. And whether you’re hunting for alien life or skiing across lakes of frozen carbon dioxide, everywhere you go, whatever you do – you’ll be the first. It will take your breath away. Though admittedly that could be down to the lack of oxygen.

How to get there

After centuries of dreaming, it’s finally happening. If all goes well, Space X entrepreneur Elon Musk plans to send the first batch of tourists hurtling towards the Red Planet by 2022. 

But in case you don’t have a spare $10bn  squirreled away for a ticket, there might be another way: exploring Mars vicariously. This is the very real possibility, currently being explored by Nasa, of exploring Mars with nothing more than a robot and a virtual reality headset You can see how it was inspired by an underwater explorer in the video below.


Robotic avatar


What to see

Top of the list is Olympus Mons. At nearly 14 miles (22 kilometres) high, the volcano is the largest in our Solar System – nearly three times taller than Mount Everest. Just like volcanoes on Earth, its summit is shrouded in wispy clouds – though they aren’t made of water, but dust. It’s not yet known whether the volcano is still active, but it’s thought that at one point the volcano was so powerful, it may have fired giant lava bombs into space.

Many craters are streaked with rivulets thought to be made of salty water (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona )

If you travel southwest from there you’ll find the Valles Marineris. This impressive valley runs like a deep scar along the Martian equator. In total, it’s about 4,000 kilometres long, which is just less than the width of the United States from east to west. In places, it’s 7 km (23,000ft) deep – nearly four times as deep as the Grand Canyon.

How it got there is a mystery. The Valles Marineris is made up of colourful layered deposits which may have formed at the bottom of an ancient lake or glacier, or from a build-up of volcanic ash. But unlike its American counterpart, which formed via erosion, it’s possible that the chasm was formed when continental drift ripped two tectonic plates apart; the two sides of the chasm match like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

“Both would be amazing places to visit. They’re much bigger than anything on earth and that’s partly because Mars has a much thicker crust,” says Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.  

If you were to watch the sunset from the canyon, it wouldn’t be red – it would be blue. The phenomenon is down to the planet’s weak atmosphere, which is only 1% as thick as Earth’s. Our planet’s sky is blue because these wavelengths are scattered by air molecules. This doesn’t happen as much on Mars so during the day, the sky is the colour of butterscotch. But when the sun is low; light has to travel further through the atmosphere and the Martian sky turns an eerie blue.

And the Red Planet has another blue surprise. In many areas, lying under a thick blanket of red dust, are rocks dyed blue and green by minerals such as iron. As a result, when the dust is swept aside by the wind or the impact of a wayward asteroid, it reveals a kaleidoscopic array of blue hues – from rippled aquamarine sand dunes to craters radiating cobalt-blue dust. 


To say that Mars is best in the summer is a bit of an understatement. “The average temperature on Mars (about -56C (-69F) is about the same as that in the interior of Antarctica,” says David Catling, an astrobiologist from the University of Washington.

If you’re looking for a beach holiday, you’ll probably want to stick to the equator. Here you’ll find it’s pleasantly warm (up to 35C (95F) in the shade) with very little wind. With such a thin atmosphere, a raging storm would feel like a light breeze. And though the nights are humid and foggy, the days are bone dry. “In the Gale Crater [an equatorial region southeast of Olympus Mons] there are around ten water molecules per million molecules of air. On earth there would be thousands,” says Vasavada.

Mars’ spectacular sand dunes are unlike any on Earth (Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

And since the Red Planet is around one and a half times further away from the sun than earth, there’s no need to bring sunglasses – daytimes are roughly as bright as if you were wearing a pair already. 

Alas, camping holidays and makeshift bonfires are firmly out. For a start, even if you could find something to burn (without any plants, you’ll struggle) the atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, which is so good at putting out fires it’s the main ingredient in many fire extinguishers.

And whatever you do, don’t fall asleep under the stars. On Earth the clouds act like a blanket to prevent heat escaping into outer space, but Mars doesn’t have any. To make matters worse, its weak, airless atmosphere can’t support much of a greenhouse effect, which usually seals in the heat. Just like deserts back on Earth, the nights are bitterly cold (-73C (-99F) on the equator).  

What to do

At a cool -125C (-193) degrees, the Martian poles are a winter wonderland like no other. Both lie in total darkness for half the year and have ice caps made of frozen water. Layered on top is a fluffy layer of super-soft frozen carbon dioxide snow; in the south it can be several metres thick.. If you can brave the arctic climate, you’ll be rewarded with skiing opportunities to turn Earth-bound sportsmen green with envy.

The car-sized robot Curiosity is the first Mars tourist to take a selfie (Credit: Nasa/JPL)

According to the magazine Popular Mechanics, every winter about a quarter of the red planet’s atmosphere will freeze solid and fall to the planet’s icy surface. And while the tiny, cubic grains would be rubbish for making snowmen (they aren’t sticky enough) – they’re ideal for sledding, snowboarding and skiing.

When the sun’s light returns in the spring the poles vaporise, turning them straight from a solid into a gas. It’s the same stuff used to make theatrical fog (dry ice). On the surface of Mars, it rises up to form wispy cirrus clouds which whip up powerful winds capable of sweeping across the planet’s surface at 248mph miles per hour (400km/h).

If you’d rather stick to the equator, you could always check out the local wildlife. Every known life-form on Earth is made of liquid water, so it’s long been thought that if there is life on Mars, it’s most likely lurking in a puddle.

Martian winds have sculpted dust into dune fields the size of Luxembourg (Credit: Alamy)

For decades, scientists searched to no avail. Then in 2011, they found it: mysterious dark streaks of liquid running down Martian slopes, canyons and craters. It’s thought the salty rivers may rise up from underground aquifers. So far, they’re the best shot at finding life as we know it – but you’ll probably need a microscope, not binoculars.

At night, why not kick back, take a weight off your feet – literally, since a 100kg person only weighs 38 kg on Mars – and admire the view. “It will certainly be a weird experience for an astronaut on Mars to look back at the Earth. The Earth and the entire human species will all be contained in just a single, bright point of light in the sky, in much the way that Venus appears in our morning or evening sky,” says Catling.

A Kodak moment if ever we’ve heard of one.

Join 700,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the bbc