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Enigmatic channel on Mars

Enigmatic channel on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on October 26, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and labeled by the science team as simply an “Enigmatic Channel in Syrtis Major.”

It shows a channel going downhill to the northeast east in a series of steps, separated cliffs that in the southwest hikers call pour-offs, with the channel becoming initially deeper and then slowly becoming more shallow, until the next pour-off. On Earth the pour-offs would be waterfalls, with a deep pond at the base. On Mars?

Without doubt this channel poses mysteries, but maybe with a little research we can make it less enigmatic. Asl always, the overview map below gives context, and helps give a possible explanation for what created this channel.

Overview map

The red box marks the channel’s location, on the edge of the giant lava field formed by the shield volcano Syrtis Major Planum, one of Mars least dramatic looking shield volcanoes which ironically was the first documented surface feature identified on another planet, discovered by Christiaan Huygens during his observations of Mars in 1659.

This shield volcano is thought to have been active about 3 billion years ago, give or take a half billion. The impact that created Isidis Basin to the east took place afterward.

This channel therefore probably marks lava flows from that ancient volcano, though we must recognize the large uncertainty here.

A side note: Tomorrow the American rover Perseverance will attempt its landing in Jezero Crater, only 400 miles to the northeast.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • DP979


    This feature is very similar to subsurface erosional features on Earth. For instance, upgradient erosion related to groundwater discharge at springs produces these features. A really good example of this is process is Horsethief Spring west of the San Pedro River and east of Sierra Vista in SE Arizona. There are several examples in the same region.

  • Greg the Geologist

    If that’s the case, the geological term would be “piping”. While I’m at it, congratulations to the Perseverance team! “Jezero Base here . . . “

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