Tag Archives: MRO

New details emerge of Schiaparelli crash site

Schiaparelli crash site

A new high resolution image from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HIRISE camera, reduced in resolution on the right, confirms that Schiaparelli crashed into the ground on October 19.

The scene shown by HiRISE includes three locations where hardware reached the ground. A dark, roughly circular feature is interpreted as where the lander itself struck. A pattern of rays extending from the circle suggests that a shallow crater was excavated by the impact, as expected given the premature engine shutdown. About 0.8 mile (1.4 kilometers) eastward, an object with several bright spots surrounded by darkened ground is likely the heat shield. About 0.8 mile (1.4 kilometers) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are interpreted as the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell to which the parachute was attached.

The center insert is a close-up of the impact site on the left, which clearly shows that the lander hit the ground hard, producing impact ejecta. That the rays are somewhat asymmetric also suggests that Schiaparellit hit the ground at an oblique angle.

MRO images Schiaparelli on Mars

before and after Schiaparelli

A comparison of images taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter before and after Schiaparelli’s failed attempt to land on Mars have revealed changes that are likely the lander on the surface. The image on the right is a composite that I’ve made showing the two images. The black spot near the top and the white spot near the bottom are not in the first image.

It is thought that the white spot is likely Schiaparelli’s parachute, while the dark spot is thought to be the lander’s impact point.

The larger dark spot near the upper edge of the enlargement was likely formed by the Schiaparelli lander. The spot is elliptical, about 50 by 130 feet (15 by 40 meters) in size, and is probably too large to have been made by the impact of the heat shield.

The large size of the dark spot suggests that the lander hit the ground hard enough to create this large scar.

An avalanche on Mars, as it happens

Avalanche on Mars

Cool image time! In their routine monitoring for avalanches at the layered deposits at the Martian north pole, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team captured the avalanche on the right, as it happened.

This picture managed to capture a small avalanche in progress, right in the color strip. … The small white cloud in front of the brick red cliff is likely carbon dioxide frost dislodged from the layers above, caught in the act of cascading down the cliff. It is larger than it looks, more than 20 meters across, and (based on previous examples) it will likely kick up clouds of dust when it hits the ground.

They note that avalanches in this area of Mars are common in the spring when things are warming, and have been documented previously, but possibly not so dramatically.

The wild Martian terrain

Yardangs on Mars

This week’s image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter illustrate well the wild and mysterious geology of the Martian surface. I include cropped sections from two images here, just to give you a taste. Go to the link to do your own exploring.

The image to the right is a cropped and scaled down version of the original image, so the details are not easily seen. Make sure you look at the original. The strange yardang ridges, all aligned alike, rise up out of a relatively smooth plain.

Yardangs are formed when a surface that is composed of materials of differing strengths (i.e., of both harder and softer materials) is shaped by the abrasive action of sand and dust carried by the wind. In this case, and given the proximity of the Apollonaris Patera volcanic center, we think that these wind-carved deposits are comprised of volcanic ash and pyroclastics that erupted from Apollonaris when it was last active in the not-too-distant geologic past. Over time, the softer materials (likely volcanic ash) were eroded away, leaving behind the harder materials in the form of elongated ridges that are parallel to the direction of the prevailing wind. The end result is a stunning, out-of-this-world display of yardangs, sculpted with the artistic chisel of the Martian wind.

That’s the theory, anyway. The actual geological process that formed these ridges is probably a lot more complicated.

The image below the fold illustrates the on-going surface activity on Mars.
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Evaporating dry ice chunks create gouges on Mars

Scientists think they have solved the mystery of the gouges that appear seasonally on some hillsides on Mars: Chunks of dry ice that slide down the slope and then evaporate, leaving no trace.

During the martian winter, carbon dioxide ice freezes over parts of the planet’s surface and sublimates back into a gas during the spring thaw. But according to the model presented here today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, chunks of warming dry ice may also break off from the crests of dunes and skid down slopes. This is no ordinary tumble—according to the model, the bases of the chunks are continually sublimating, resulting in a hovercraftlike motion that gouges the dune while propelling the ice down slopes. Solid ice that survives to the bottom settles into a pit before dissipating back into the atmosphere.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographs Comet Siding Spring

During Comet Siding Spring’s flyby of Mars on Sunday Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to capture an image of the comet’s nucleus.

Prior to its arrival near Mars astronomers estimated the nucleus or comet’s core diameter at around 0.6 mile (1 km). Based on these images, where the brightest feature is only 2-3 pixels across, its true size is shy of 1/3 mile or 0.5 km.

Dry ice evaporation creates the fresh gullies on Mars

New data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that the fresh gullies that have been seen on the Red Planet are caused by dry ice evaporation, not liquid water as had been hoped.

Dundas and collaborators used the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on MRO to examine gullies at 356 sites on Mars, beginning in 2006. Thirty-eight of the sites showed active gully formation, such as new channel segments and increased deposits at the downhill end of some gullies.

Using dated before-and-after images, researchers determined the timing of this activity coincided with seasonal carbon-dioxide frost and temperatures that would not have allowed for liquid water.

Frozen carbon dioxide, commonly called dry ice, does not exist naturally on Earth, but is plentiful on Mars. It has been linked to active processes on Mars such as carbon dioxide gas geysers and lines on sand dunes plowed by blocks of dry ice. One mechanism by which carbon-dioxide frost might drive gully flows is by gas that is sublimating from the frost providing lubrication for dry material to flow. Another may be slides due to the accumulating weight of seasonal frost buildup on steep slopes.

The findings in this latest report suggest all of the fresh-appearing gullies seen on Mars can be attributed to processes currently underway, whereas earlier hypotheses suggested they formed thousands to millions of years ago when climate conditions were possibly conducive to liquid water on Mars.

Orbital images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have confirmed that the mysterious rock that appeared near Opportunity was not ejecta from a nearby meteorite impact.

Orbital images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have confirmed that the mysterious rock that appeared near Opportunity was not ejecta from a nearby meteorite impact.

The scientists theorized that there was a very remote chance that a nearby impact has thrown the rock into place, but the images show nothing nearby. Moreover, if there had been an impact we probably would have seen more rocks raining down all around. The images are further confirmation that the rock was kicked up by the rover itself as it rolled along.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spots a new crater on Mars.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spots a new crater on Mars.

The scar appeared at some time between imaging of this location by the orbiter’s Context Camera in July 2010 and again in May 2012. Based on apparent changes between those before-and-after images at lower resolution, researchers used HiRISE to acquire this new image on Nov. 19, 2013. The impact that excavated this crater threw some material as far as 9.3 miles (15 kilometers).

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the launch of Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took its photograph.

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the launch of Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took its photograph.

The image was not merely for PR. It also provides the scientists operating Opportunity some good information about the region the rover is exploring, thus helping them plan out its further adventures on the surface of Mars.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team today released a set of images showing Curiosity’s recent travel on Mars, as well as some fascinating closeups of the spacecraft’s heat shield, parachute, and descent stage.

Curiosity's first steps

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team today released a set of images showing Curiosity’s first steps on Mars, as well as some fascinating closeups of the spacecraft’s heat shield, parachute, and descent stage. The image on the left shows the tracks of the rover during its first few days of travel.

Scientists have found more evidence that the streaks on Martian hillsides that darken in warm weather are caused by melting groundwater flowing downhill.

Liquid water on Mars! Scientists have found more evidence that the streaks on Martian hillsides that darken in warm weather are caused by melting groundwater flowing downhill.

Last summer, the team pointing the HiRISE camera on the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) dropped that bombshell: it had identified 7 confirmed and 12 likely sites that contained hundreds of narrow streaks on steep slopes inside crater walls. During warmer seasons, as temperatures rose as high as 27 degrees Celsius, the streaks darkened, and then faded again. Salts could allow brines to be liquid at these temperatures. Today at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, the HiRISE team announced that it now has doubled it stash of streaks, with the identification of 15 confirmed and 23 likely sites, all in the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere.

Additional analysis of the spectrographic data also suggests that water could be the cause of the darkening.

What is this stuff?

What is this stuff?

The uncertainty of science: In this week’s release of images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the science team posted the image on the right and asked, “What is this stuff?”

Here’s a hypothetical geologic history that might explain this scene: layered sediments were deposited by water or airfall (including volcanic pyroclastics). A crudely polygonal patterned ground was created by stresses in the sediments, and groundwater followed the fractures and deposited minerals that cemented the sediments. This was followed by perhaps billions of years of erosion by the wind, leaving the cemented fractures as high-standing ridges.

Of course, this story is almost certainly incomplete if not totally wrong.

Click here to see the close-up subimage from which I cropped the image on the right.

A big sideways slip on Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter today released an image of a really spectacular transform fault on Mars, a spot where the ground cracked and two sections moved sideways to each other. In this case, the sideways movement was about 300 feet. The image is posted below the fold.

Compare that with the Japanese magnitude 9 earthquake on March 11, which only shifted the seabed sideways 165 feet while raising it 33 feet. The quake that moved these two pieces of Martian bedrock sideways must have been quite a ride.
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The Winds of Mars

changing martian dunes
Images taken 1363 days apart.

In two different papers published in two different journals in the past month, scientists have concluded that — despite the thinness of the planet’s atmosphere — the dunes and sands of Mars are being continually shaped and changed by its winds. In both papers the data from which this conclusion was drawn came from high resolution images taken by the HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

What is especially interesting about this conclusion is that the climate models that had been developed for the Martian atmosphere, combined with wind measurements gathered by the various Martian landers, had all suggested that the kind of strong winds necessary to move sand were rare. To quote the abstract of the paper published on Monday in the journal Geology, Bridges, et al,

Prior to Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter data, images of Mars showed no direct evidence for dune and ripple motion. This was consistent with climate models and lander measurements indicating that winds of sufficient intensity to mobilize sand were rare in the low-density atmosphere.

Similarly, the second paper, Silvestro, et al, published on October 22 in Geophysical Research Letters, stated that

results from wind tunnel simulations and atmospheric models show that such strong wind events should be rare in the current Martian atmospheric setting.

Yet, both studies found significant evidence that such winds do occur on Mars, and are moving sand in many different places.
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Catching an avalanche on Mars, as it happens

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team today released this really cool image from Mars, showing an avalanche near the North Pole, in progress. The image looks directly down the cliff face from above. At the base of the cliff we can see the dust cloud from the crash of material billowing out away from the scarp.

What impresses me most about this image is that it was taken by an orbiting spacecraft approximately 200 miles above the planet’s surface, moving at thousands of miles an hour. Yet, the camera not only had the resolution to see the cloud of dust, it could snap the image fast enough to capture the actual fall of material (the white wisps down the side of the cliff that are reminiscent of a waterfall).

Also intriguing is the visible steep face of the cliff face itself. I know a lot of rock climbers who would love to literally get their hands (and chocks) on that rock face. And in Mars’s one-third gravity, rock climbing would surely be different.

avalanche on Mars

The rover Opportunity as seen from Mars orbit

Opportunity on Endeavour Crater rim

The image to the right was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the white arrow showing the Mars rover Opportunity perched on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

The rover’s scientists hope that the rocks found on the crater rim, dredged up from deep below when the crater impact occurred, will be the oldest rocks so far touched on the Martian surface, and thus give them a peek at ancient Martian geology.