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Baby Martian volcanoes

Cratered cone near Noctis Fossae
Click for full image.

Cool image time! I came across this strange feature shown on the right in my normal rummaging through the archive of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The photo, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, focuses on what they label a “cratered cone.”

The immediate thought is that this is a volcano cone, and the craters at its peak are not impact craters but calderas. In science however such a knee-jerk conclusion is always dangerous. For example, this might instead be a pedestal crater, where the surrounding terrain was worn away over eons, leaving the crater sitting high and dry.

It is therefore important to look deeper to determine what origin of this feature might be.

First, its location, as shown in the overview map below, provides us our first clue.

Overview map

This pimple on Mars, as indicated by the blue rectangle, is located on the very edge of the heavily fissured region called Noctis Fossae, just west of Valles Marineris and immediately north of the vast chaos region dubbed Noctis Labyrinthus.

Noctis Fossae is really an extension of Noctis Labyrinthus, but instead of canyons and fissures going in all directions, its fissures are all parallel in a north-south direction. This suggests they are volcanic cracks created when the underlying magma pushed the surface upward. As Noctis Fossae is part of the volcanic Tharsis Bulge region, with the string of three giant volcanoes just to the west, it is thus not surprising to find evidence of underlying volcanic pressure.

What other data do we have? Take another look at the overview map, obtained from the MRO high-res camera archive. The red rectangles scattered about are the locations of all the high resolution photos that MRO has so far taken in this area. Note how few there are. Surrounding this cone MRO has literally taken no other high resolution images, for many miles. This lack suggests that MRO’s context camera, designed to take lower resolution wide images, has not spotted any interesting features worth inspecting with high resolution follow-ups.

Mosaic of both cone images
Click for full image of second cone.

However, when I took a close look at this particular spot, I discovered that one other picture had been taken in this region, and it happened to be located just to the northwest of this cratered cone, with an overlap. The mosaic to the right combines the above photo with that second image, showing that this cratered cone is also aligned with another cratered cone to northwest.

Their similarity and alignment argues against them being pedestal craters. Instead, it suggests an underground fault has provided a pathway for magma to push upward at both places, creating these small volcanoes. Furthermore, the second image had been given the title “Mound Surrounded by Lava Close to Noctis Fossae,” telling us that the MRO science team thought the surface here was volcanic in nature.

So, is it certain that these are volcano cones? Well, maybe. Though the data available suggests this conclusion, you must never forget the uncertainty of science. There is still the possibility that we are not seeing cones created by molten magma, but by underground water ice pushing mud upward, much as magma does. Such things have been found in the Martian northern lowlands (see here and here).

The universe is an amazing puzzle. Explaining it takes hard work, and a willingness to keep an open mind, at all times.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.

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