Explore Mars-like Places Here on Earth

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Learn about Mars by Exploring Earth!

A view from the "Kimberly" formation on Mars taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating the ancient depression that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As the time grows near for the first humans to head to Mars, and that may be in the next decade or so, people may want to learn about the Mars-like conditions the first explorers will face. Although Earth is much wetter and more hospitable than Mars, there are still some places here at home more like Mars than you'd think. 

This gallery takes you to some places on Mars and describes what their analogs are here on Earth. These are regions where scientists go to sample the soils, study the climate, and walk the surface to get a feel for what it will be like for the first Mars explorers. From deserts and volcanoes to dry lakebeds and impact craters, Mars and Earth have similar features and histories. It makes perfect sense to explore Earth before heading to Mars! 

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The Rippling Dunes of Mars

Mars dunes
Sets of wind-sculpted ripples are evident in this view of the top surface of a Martian sand dune. Sand dunes and the smaller type of ripples also exist on Earth. The larger ripples -- roughly 10 feet (3 meters) apart -- are a type not seen on Earth nor previously recognized as a distinct type on Mars. NASA/Malin Space Science Systems,

The rippling sands of Mars cover many parts of the planet. Dune fields on Earth give insight into how these same features form on the Red Planet.

Mars is a dusty desert planet these days. Images from the rovers and orbiters there show extensive sand dunes rippling across the plains and crater floors of the planet. Here on Earth, sand dunes are abundant and make good places to learn about those kinds of environments. From the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado (in the U.S.) to the giant rippling dune fields of the Sahara in Africa, Martian explorers can learn more about the way dunes form and move across the landscapes here on Earth, as well as on Mars.

Dunes form as an interaction between sand and winds, and they way they look depends on the sandy materials and the directions and strengths of the winds that shape them. Winds on Mars blow through a thin atmosphere, but they are still strong enough to make gorgeous dunes. The first Mars explorers will likely encounter dunes at some point, and so it's a good idea for them to study dune fields here on Earth.

Mars Analogs Are Important

When the first Mars-nauts set foot on the Red Planet, they will have prepared for that step by practicing here on Earth. That's why Mars analogs are important. While these places here on Earth may not be exactly like Mars, they're still good enough for us to study and train in today for the explorations of tomorrow. 

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Craters, Craters, and More Craters!

Mars craters
Orcus Patera on Mars is an oddly shaped depression on the Mars surface that is also pockmarked with circular impact craters. These were created as rocks from space smashed into the surface of the Red Planet. ESA/Mars Express mission

Martian craters form as Earth's did, through impacts by rocky debris orbiting the Sun. Every planet and moon in the solar system experiences these events.

Mars is littered with impact craters, with  more of them in the southern half of the planet than the north. They're made the same way craters are gouged out here on Earth: from an impact by rocky debris from outer space. So, where on Earth do you go to study Mars-like impacts? Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona is a favorite and was also used by the astronauts who went to the Moon as a training base. If you go there today, you can see remnants of their training area at the bottom of the crater. 

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Martian Valleys and Plains

mars landscape
A view of Marathon Valley on Mars as seen by the Mars Opportunity Rover in June 2016. NASA

Explore the Martian valleys and plains by looking at Antarctica, the Australian Outback, and other frozen deserts here on Earth.

The plains of Mars are dry, dusty regions where dust devils can be spotted rustling along the surface. There's evidence in some regions of underground ice frozen into what's called Martian permafrost, and the existence of dried-out flow channels tell us that Mars was once wet in the ancient past. So, where on Earth can you find frozen ground and carved-out regions?

Antarctica is a good place to start. It has dry valleys that experience very low temperatures, strong winds, daily freeze-thaw cycles, and lots of sunlight, high winds, and a peculiar soil chemistry. In short, it's more like Mars than many other places on Earth. Scientists have studied these regions extensively in an effort to understand places on Mars that are also dry, cold, barren, and windy. The deserts of Utah, the Australian Outback, and the tundra of Devon Island and Haughton Crater in Canada are also favorite Mars analogs here on Earth. 

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Martian Volcanoes!

Pictures of Mars - Shield Volcano
Olympus Mons is a shield volcano on Mars. Copyright 1995-2003, California Institute of Technology

The volcanic islands of Hawai'i give good insight into the volcanoes of Mars, particularly Olympus Mons—the tallest volcano in the solar system.

Mars has a collection of volcanoes that tell scientists the planet was once very geologically active. Today, those mountains are likely dead or very, very dormant. Their structures, however, look very familiar to anyone who has studied volcanoes here on Earth. Each year geologists trek to places such as Mauna Loa and Kilauea in Hawai'i to observe structures similar to those on Mars. In particular, they study the way the lavas flow, and how the mountains are eroded by rain and freeze-thaw cycles. In particular, they want to know more about the chemistry of the lavas and how that chemistry might be applied to understanding the volcanic features seen on Mars. 

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Ancient Lakes and Riverbeds on Mars

A view from the "Kimberly" formation on Mars taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating the ancient depression that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The surface of Mars shows evidence of a warmer past where water flowed across the surface. Lake beds and shorelines on Earth help us understand Mars's past.

It's well-known that early Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today. The Red Planet had more water then than it does now. While planetary scientists continue to figure out just why the water disappeared, they do know that much of it either escaped to space or seeped underground and froze. Some water ice remains in the polar caps, as well. The evidence for ancient lakes and rivers and oceans is spread across the planet. The landforms show river valleys and ancient lakeshores. On Earth, scientists look for similar places in dessicated, high-altitude environments such as high-altitude lakes, rivers and lakes on volcanoes, and other places where the surface is subjected to extremes of temperature and ultraviolet radiation — similar to the environment on Mars.

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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Explore Mars-like Places Here on Earth." ThoughtCo, Jul. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/explore-mars-like-here-on-earth-4102174. Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2017, July 2). Explore Mars-like Places Here on Earth. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/explore-mars-like-here-on-earth-4102174 Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Explore Mars-like Places Here on Earth." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/explore-mars-like-here-on-earth-4102174 (accessed January 16, 2018).