The universe is an incredibly hostile place for most life forms. And as we search for new places to colonize, Mars is the hot contender. While it doesn’t look like this world could possibly support life, at one point, this particular Martian plain, was soaking wet. Today, the hemispheres on Mars are radically different from each other, which is a rare phenomenon in our solar system. Its northern plain is characterized by flat lowlands while its southern plain is littered with volcanoes and basins.
One theory for this topography is that billions of years ago, a large celestial object the size of Earth’s moon careened into the Martian south pole, triggering volcanic activity. The molten rock eventually solidified, forming mountainous highlands we see here. There still isn’t any conclusive evidence of this, and the martian dichotomy is still a subject of debate.
Scientists have treated Mars just like Earth, naming craters, basins, outcrops and terras with GPS coordinates for scientific missions. Just a few degrees from the Martian equator lies the Meridiani Planum. As the Ancient Romans would say, “meridani” as in middle, “planum” as in plain. Meridiani Planum is a flat expanse with very few rocks and craters. To really get a sense of the size, Meridiani stretches approximately 47,800 square miles which is about the size of North Korea.
The flat terrain is one reasons why NASA chose Meridiani Planum as the landing spot for the Opportunity Rover in 2004. The other reason is that this plain has an ancient layer of hematite and it could hold a lot of clues about the red planet’s past. Hematite is a mineral composed of iron oxide that comes in both red and grey colors. The red kind is everywhere on Mars, giving the planet its distinctive red hue. But the grey hematite almost always appears whenever liquid water exists.