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Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second smallest planet in the Solar System. Named after the Roman god of war, it is often described as the "Red Planet", as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth. The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons.
The current understanding of planetary habitability - the ability of a world to develop and sustain life - favors planets that have liquid water on their surface. This most often requires that the orbit of a planet lie within the habitable zone, which for the Sun currently extends from just beyond Venus to about the semi-major axis of Mars.
During perihelion, Mars dips inside this region, but the planet's thin (low-pressure) atmosphere prevents liquid water from existing over large regions for extended periods. The past flow of liquid water demonstrates the planet's potential for habitability. Some recent evidence has suggested that any water on the Martian surface may have been too salty and acidic to support regular terrestrial life.
The exploration of Mars has taken place over hundreds of years, beginning in earnest with the invention and development of the telescope since the 1600s. Increasingly detailed views of the planet from Earth inspired speculation about its environment and possible life - even intelligent civilizations - that might be found there. Probes sent from Earth beginning in the late 20th century have yielded a dramatic increase in knowledge about the Martian system, focused primarily on understanding its geology and possible habitability potential.

The popular idea that Mars was populated by intelligent Martians exploded in the late 19th century. Schiaparelli's "canali" observations combined with Percival Lowell's books on the subject put forward the standard notion of a planet that was a drying, cooling, dying world with ancient civilizations constructing irrigation works.
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) is an ongoing robotic space mission involving two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, exploring the planet Mars. It began in 2003 with the sending of the two rovers-MER-A Spirit and MER-B Opportunity-to explore the Martian surface and geology.
The mission's scientific objective was to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. The mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, which includes three previous successful landers: the two Viking program landers in 1976 and Mars Pathfinder probe in 1997.
In recognition of the vast amount of scientific information amassed by both rovers, two asteroids have been named in their honor: 37452 Spirit and 39382 Opportunity. The mission is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which designed, built, and is operating the rovers.
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