Though details of Mars' surface are difficult to see from Earth, telescope observations show seasonally changing features and white patches at the poles. For decades, people speculated that bright and dark areas on Mars were patches of vegetation, Mars was a likely place for advanced life forms, and water might exist in the polar caps. When the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars in 1965, photographs of a bleak, cratered surface shocked many - Mars seemed to be a dead planet. Later missions, however, showed that Mars is a complex planet and holds many mysteries yet to be solved. Chief among them is whether Mars ever had the right conditions to support small life forms called microbes.
Mars is a rocky body about half the size of Earth. As with the other terrestrial planets - Mercury, Venus, and Earth - volcanoes, impact craters, crustal movement, and atmospheric conditions such as dust storms have altered the surface of Mars.
Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, that may be captured asteroids. Potato-shaped, they have too little mass for gravity to make them spherical. Phobos, the innermost moon, is heavily cratered, with deep grooves on its surface.
Like Earth, Mars experiences seasons due to the tilt of its rotational axis. Mars' orbit is about 1.5 times farther from the sun than Earth's and is slightly elliptical, so its distance from the sun changes. That affects the length of Martian seasons, which vary in length. The polar ice caps on Mars grow and recede with the seasons. Layered areas near the poles suggest that the planet's climate has changed more than once. Volcanism in the highlands and plains was active more than 3 billion years ago. Some of the giant shield volcanoes are younger, having formed between 1 and 2 billion years ago. Mars has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, as well as a spectacular equatorial canyon system, Valles Marineris.
Mars has no global magnetic field today. However, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter found that areas of the Martian crust in the southern hemisphere are highly magnetized, indicating traces of a magnetic field from 4 billion years ago that remain.