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The taffy terrain in Mars’ death valley

Taffy terrain in Hellas Basin on Mars

Cool image time! The picture to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and sharpened to post here, was taken on February 21, 2024 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Labeled “banded terrain and layering,” it actually is a good example of “taffy terrain,” a weird Martian geological formation unique to the Red Planet that scientists as yet don’t quite understand. This 2014 paper only says this:

The apparent sensitivity to local topography and preference for concentrating in localized depressions is compatible with deformation as a viscous fluid. In addition, the bands display clear signs of degradation and slumping at their margins along with a suite of other features that include fractured mounds, polygonal cracks at variable size-scales, and knobby/hummocky textures. Together, these features suggest an ice-rich composition for at least the upper layers of the terrain, which is currently being heavily modified through loss of ice and intense weathering, possibly by wind.

Overview map

The red dot on the overview map to the right marks the location, in the lowest elevation region of Hellas Basin, the death valley of Mars. The light blue indicates the area in Hellas where this taffy terrain dominates the surface.

I have increased the contrast in the inset to bring out the bands and layering, but if you really want to get a feel for this alien geology, click on the picture above and peruse the full image. Lots to see, all of its beautifuly but utterly alien. As I noted in 2021 in summarizing this 2016 paper [pdf], scientists don’t yet know what kind of viscous fluid created these weird features.

Many theories propose that ice and water acting in conjunction with salt caused their formation, similar to salt domes seen on Earth. Other propose that the terrain formed from some kind of volcanic or impact melt process.

This location at the bottom of Hellas Basin would be a perfect site for a future helicopter mission. Because of its low elevation the atmosphere is thicker, aiding flight. And the rough terrain suggests a helicopter would be better than a rover for getting from place to place.

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

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