The first observations of Mars were from ground-based telescopes. The history of these observations are marked by the oppositions of Mars, when the planet is closest to Earth and hence is most easily visible, which occur every couple of years. Even more notable are the perihelic oppositions of Mars which occur approximately every 16 years, and are distinguished because Mars is close to perihelion making it even closer to Earth.
In September 1877, (a perihelic opposion of Mars occurred on September 5), Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published the first detailed map of Mars. These maps notably contained features he called canali ("channels"), that were later shown to be an optical illusion. These canali were supposedly long straight lines on the surface of Mars to which he gave names of famous rivers on Earth. His term was popularly mistranslated as canals, and so started the Martian canal controversy.
Following these observations, it was a long held belief that Mars contained vast seas and vegetation. It was not until spacecraft visited the planet during NASA's Mariner missions in the 1960s that these myths were dispelled. Some maps of Mars were made using the data from these missions, but it wasn't until the Mars Global Surveyor mission, launched in 1996 and ending in late 2006, that complete, extremely detailed maps were obtained. These maps are now available online at http://www.google.com/mars/
The dichotomy of Martian topography is striking: northern plains flattened by lava flows contrast with the southern highlands, pitted and cratered by ancient impacts. The surface of Mars as seen from Earth is consequently divided into two kinds of areas, with differing albedo. The paler plains covered with dust and sand rich in reddish iron oxides were once thought of as Martian 'continents' and given names like Arabia Terra (land of Arabia) or Amazonis Planitia (Amazonian plain). The dark features were thought to be seas, hence their names Mare Erythraeum, Mare Sirenum and Aurorae Sinus. The largest dark feature seen from Earth is Syrtis Major.
The shield volcano, Olympus Mons (Mount Olympus), is at 26 km the highest known mountain in the solar system. It is in a vast upland region called Tharsis, which contains several large volcanos. See list of mountains on Mars. The Tharsis region of Mars also has the solar system's largest canyon system, Valles Marineris or the Mariner Valley, which is 4,000 km long and 7 km deep. Mars is also scarred by a number of impact craters. The largest of these is the Hellas impact basin, covered with light red sand. See list of craters on Mars.
The difference between Mars' highest and lowest points is nearly 31 km (from the top of Olympus Mons at an altitude of 26 km to the bottom of the Hellas impact basin at an altitude of 4 km below the datum). In comparison, the difference between Earth's highest and lowest points (Mount Everest and the Mariana Trench) is only 19.7 km. Combined with the planets' different radii, this means Mars is nearly three times "rougher" than Earth.
Over the next twenty years or so, as instruments improved and the number of observers also increased, various Martian features acquired a hodge-podge of names. To give a couple of examples, Solis Lacus was known as the "Oculus" (the Eye), and Syrtis Major was usually known as the "Hourglass Sea" or the "Scorpion". In 1858, it was also dubbed the "Atlantic Canale" by the Jesuit astronomer Angelo Secchi. Secchi commented that it "seems to play the role of the Atlantic which, on Earth, separates the Old Continent from the New" —this was the first time the fateful canale, which in Italian can mean either "channel" or "canal", had been applied to Mars.
In 1867, Richard Anthony Proctor drew up a map of Mars based, somewhat crudely, on the Rev. William Rutter Dawes' earlier drawings of 1865, then the best ones available. Proctor explained his system of nomenclature by saying, "I have applied to the different features the names of those observers who have studied the physical peculiarities presented by Mars." Here are some of his names, paired with those later used by Schiaparelli in his Martian map created between 1877 and 1886. Schiaparelli's names were generally adopted and are the names actually used today:
Proctor's nomenclature has often been criticized, mainly because so many of his names honored English astronomers, but also because he used many names more than once. In particular, Dawes appeared no fewer than six times (Dawes Ocean, Dawes Continent, Dawes Sea, Dawes Strait, Dawes Isle, and Dawes Forked Bay). Even so, Proctor's names are not without charm, and for all their shortcomings they were a foundation on which later astronomers would improve.
Large Martian craters are named after important scientists and science fiction writers; smaller ones are named after towns and villages on Earth.
Various landforms studied by the Mars Exploration Rover are given temporary names or nicknames to identify and marker them, however certain major features such as the Columbia Hills were named after the seven astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and the hope is that the names are made permanent by the International Astronomical Union.