Dust devil tracks on the Martian southern highlands

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Dust devil tracks

Today’s cool image is cool because of how little is there. The image to the right, cropped to post here, was part of the December image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The uncaptioned release labeled this image simply as “Southern Intercrater Plains.” Located in the Martian southern highlands, this location is located almost due south of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the chain of three giant volcanoes to the west of Marineris Valles (as indicated by the white dot on the overview image below).

If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph, though in this case it won’t show you much else than in the excerpt to the right. The terrain here appears flat. The only features of note are some small knobs and the random dark lines that are almost certainly accumulated dust devil tracks. There are also many dark spots, which might also be the shadows of even smaller knobs, but could also be instrument artifacts. I am not sure.

Location of dust devil image

The southern highlands are mostly cratered, with few signs that water ever flowed there. This image for example gives the impression of a vast lonely terrain that has changed little since the very earliest days of Mars’ history.

I expect that scientists could possibly assign some age to this terrain, merely by studying the dust devil tracks. If we calculate how often dust devils might traverse this place, and then count the tracks, assigning their order by faintness, with the faintest being the oldest, it could be possible to obtain a rough age of the oldest tracks.

Still, all that would do would tell us the approximate length of time in which a dust devil track can remain visible. And even if this is a long time, it doesn’t constrain the age of the surface very much, as the weather on Mars has certainly changed with time, especially because we think the atmosphere was once thicker.

What formed this flat terrain? My first guess would be a lava flow, caused when the numerous nearby craters were formed by impact. These craters were likely created during the great bombardment between 3 and 4 billion years ago, and while they have certainly been modified more than lunar craters because of the presence of an atmosphere on Mars, they are likely to have not changed much during that time. Similarly, this flat terrain is likely much like it was, several billion years ago. Dust devils have deposited dust and their tracks, but the hard bedrock remains as it was soon after it solidified.



  • Max

    Those darn kids and their motorcycles, this will really upset the environmentalist. Look at all the vandalism to surface of Mars. The pristine surface all ruined…

  • wodun

    @ Max

    That argument, joke even!, works great for Mars but what about the Moon?

  • Col Beausabre

    “as the weather on Mars has certainly changed with time, especially because we think the atmosphere was once thicker”

    Climate change ! Somebody tell Al Gore !! We have to SAVE Mars !!!

  • Max

    @ wodun,
    Yes, I was joking.
    I was also staring at the picture for quite a while. At first, I was picturing dune buggies, or tracks of herd animals migrating across the desert. Then memories of John Connor took over… His memory and spirit inhabits the whirlwinds. A legend, like Paul Bunyan…

    The moon is a dead cold world, lifeless and barren. Every track made represents a miracle of human achievement. hope and progress into a future that was beyond belief 100 years ago, and will remain undisturbed for millions of years into the future… That we were/are here.

    Anyone who complains that disturbing the surface is somehow sacrilege has never created something beautiful, to use their hands and intelligence to create a better life for themselves and to the generations who will come after, a legacy and an example of what is possible. A magnificent achievement if one dares to dream of something better.

    The moon is ugly, it needs an artist eye, a woman’s touch, and architects dream to make it truly beautiful. Even if it can’t be seen from earth, any changes to the surface is a improvement that will give mankind purpose, especially for the generations that will enjoy it. Building an artificial environment, giving life to that which was dead, will be mankind’s finest achievement.
    I also want to see one of Space X Tesla vehicles racing around the wall of a crater at high-speed… A Speedway to make an alien environment feel like home.

  • wayne

    Max– here you go…

    A Princess of Mars
    E R Burroughs
    Chapter XX: In the Atmosphere Factory


    “The atmosphere factory (or atmosphere plant) is a large and highly guarded installation maintained by Helium. It is responsible for providing the air that sustains all life on Barsoom. The factory utilizes the ninth ray of sunlight, separating it out from the other eight rays using instruments on the factory’s roof. The ray is converted into energy and stored in one of several enormous reservoirs, at which point an electrical current is introduced that presumably converts the energy into a gas. It is then pumped to the five principal air centers of the planet where it is released and transformed into breathable atmosphere. There is always enough of the ninth ray stored in the reservoirs to maintain the Martian atmosphere for a thousand years as long as the pumping apparatus remains functional. The building covers an area of four square miles and rises to a height of 200 feet.”

  • Max

    Thanks Wayne, I knew you would catch the reference when most people would be thinking about the guy that fights the Terminator.
    The first Syfy adventure ever written at a time when we knew little to nothing about mars. I’ve read everything you posted on the subject, I like it as much as the movie…

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