Skip to Content

Why is Mars glowing red?

Mars has captured the imagination of humans for centuries with its distinct reddish glow. But what exactly causes the Red Planet to look so red? In this article, we’ll explore the science behind Mars’ color and why it appears the way it does from our vantage point on Earth.

Mars’ Atmosphere

The main factor contributing to Mars’ reddish appearance is the composition of its atmosphere. Mars’ atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere and consists of 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, and trace amounts of oxygen and water. Unlike Earth’s atmosphere, Mars’ atmosphere contains very little ozone, which allows more ultraviolet light from the sun to reach the surface.

Additionally, the iron oxide (rust) dust that covers the surface of Mars reacts with this high level of UV light to produce a phenomenon called “global dust storm.” These wind-driven storms stir up tons of fine iron oxide particles, essentially blanketing the entire planet in a reddish haze.

Iron Oxide

Iron oxide, better known as rust, is abundant on Mars and gives the soil its reddish color. This iron oxide dust coats the surface of the planet and also fills the thin Martian atmosphere when high winds kick it up into massive dust storms. So when we look up at the Martian sky from Earth, we are seeing a red tinge created by millions of tons of rust particles.

Compound Chemical Formula
Iron(II) oxide FeO
Iron(III) oxide Fe2O3
Magnetite Fe3O4

The table above shows the different iron oxide compounds that contribute to the red color of Mars. Iron(III) oxide, or hematite (Fe2O3), is the most abundant and gives Mars its distinctive red hue. There are also deposits of magnetite (Fe3O4) which are black in color.

Surface Features

In addition to the global dust storms, the specific geological features and terrain of Mars also influence its coloration. Here are some of the major surface regions that add to the red appearance:

  • Arabia Terra – This vast reddish region in the northern hemisphere contains large deposits of iron oxides which color the soil.
  • Meridiani Planum – The Opportunity rover discovered hematite (rust) sprinkled across this plain, indicating the presence of water long ago.
  • Syrtis Major Planum – A low-lying volcanic plain coated with iron-rich red dust blown in from nearby plains.
  • Hellas Basin – An impact crater in the southern hemisphere exhibiting a range of iron-rich hues from ochre to deep red.

These Martian regions demonstrate how the reddish iron minerals deposited across the landscape literally dye the surface red. Even when dust storms aren’t active, the base color of the rocky terrain and soil shines through.

Sunlight Scattering

The way sunlight interacts with the Martian atmosphere also enhances the red appearance. As sunlight passes through the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, the shorter blue wavelengths are scattered more easily while longer red wavelengths reach the surface. This scattering process, called Rayleigh scattering, makes the sky take on a reddish hue rather than the familiar blue color of Earth’s sky.

Color Wavelength Scattering Effect
Violet – 400 nm High scattering
Blue – 500 nm High scattering
Green – 550 nm Moderate scattering
Yellow – 600 nm Low scattering
Red – 700 nm Minimal scattering

As the table shows, shorter wavelengths like violet and blue are scattered frequently while longer wavelengths like red make it through the Martian atmosphere. This gives an overall red cast to the light illuminating the surface.

How the Red Color is Perceived

The final piece in understanding Mars’ red color involves the human brain. When interpreting color, our visual system looks at the spectrum of light entering our eyes. Mars appears reddish-orange to humans because this wavelength dominates the light reflecting off its surface and atmosphere. Our brains process this color based on the spectrum of visible light we can detect.

However, Mars wouldn’t look quite so red to organisms that see differently than humans. For example, bees can’t see the color red but they can detect ultraviolet light. To a creature that sees in the UV spectrum, Mars might look rather purple or blue instead of red since it reflects more UV light.


Mars dazzles in the night sky with its trademark red glow, but this phenomenon is the result of a unique combination of geological and atmospheric factors. The prevalence of iron oxides in the soil, dust storms, and sunlight scattering through its carbon dioxide atmosphere all contribute to making Mars look red. This distinctive color has captured imaginations for generations, but we now understand it is due to specific chemical and optical processes involving iron, dust, and the scattering of light wavelengths.

The appearance of Mars as a reddish orb is also dependent on human visual perception. To organisms that see differently than us, Mars may not look nearly so red. But to our eyes, it will continue shining crimson in the night sky as a vivid reminder of an alien world right next door.