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Skiing dry ice boulders on Mars

Dune slope, with grooves, in Russell Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image and video time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows something that when I spotted it in reviewing the newest image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found it very baffling. The photo was taken on March 3, 2020, and shows an incredible number of linear groves on the slope of a large dune inside Russell Crater, located in the Martian southern highlands at about 54 degrees south latitude.

If these were created by boulders we should see them at the bottom of each groove. Instead, the grooves generally seem to peter out as if the boulder rolling down the slope had vanished. Making this even more unlikely is that the top of the slope simply does not have sufficient boulders to make all these groves.

The image was requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who when I emailed her in bafflement she responded like so:

You will love the explanation for this one! (-:

We think that the grooves are formed from blocks of dry ice breaking off at the top and sliding down the sand dune.

…What is really fun (at least if you are a nerd like me) is to go to the grocery store and buy a block of dry ice, then head to any nearby sand dunes. The block will levitate and slide down if the sand is compact enough.

Because the block is sublimating away, the gas acts as a lubricant so that it can slide down the hill. If large enough, the dry ice block will stop at the base of the hill to disappear in a small pit. If small enough, it actually might completely vaporize as it slides, explaining the grooves that appear to gradually fade away.

Hansen and her colleagues actually did this, and posted the video of it on youtube.

Though the dune on Mars is in the high mid-latitudes, Hansen explained that it is possible for carbon dioxide to condense into a solid on Mars at latitudes as low as 20 degrees. “We think carbon dioxide gets cold-trapped up in the alcoves at the crest of the dunes.”

This theory is actually not new. I have posted about it previously — on July 10, 2014, on December 21, 2015, and on October 25, 2017 — with the last post also including the video above.

The idea is so strange however that it apparently never sunk in. Maybe this image will help me remember it the next time I see boulder tracks on Mars, made by boulders that have vanished.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Phill O

    Cool! Literally.

  • APL

    Gullies on Mars are fairly deep until pretty much the end of the track. This would imply a relatively large starting block. No blocks are ever seen at the bottom or partway down the tracks. Lots of potential blocks at the top. Earth simulations seem to show very different types of tracks – they seem much shallower, almost invisible.

    I’m inclined to think something else is going on, although I admit I don’t another theory – not enough data.

  • Alex Andrite

    Ice Blocking on Earth. 50lb blocks of ice, terry cloth towels, well manicured golf course, at night, teenagers.
    Find well groomed golf course grass slope, place ice block near slope edge, place towel on top of block, sit on block, towel becomes obvious, link legs around buddy / buddyess in front of you to form a chain, no more than six is best.
    Nudge, scoot to edge of slope, until …
    Warp speed down the slope.
    Careful of flying ice blocks.
    Leave ice blocks at bottom of slide to mysteriously disappear by morning.
    Ice Blocking on Earth.

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