The icy mountains close to where SpaceX hopes to land Starship on Mars

The icy mountains near Starship's landing site on Mars
Click for original image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and sharpened to post here, was taken on June 25, 2023 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Labeled as showing “flow features” by the scientists, it gives us a nice example of many of the different types of glacial and near-surface ice features seen routinely in the Martian latitudes above 30 degrees, especially in the northern hemisphere.

First there is the apron around the mound. Its layering suggests the many cycles that Mars’ climate has undergone as its rotational tilt swung back and forth from as low as 11 to as much as 60 degrees (it is presently at 25 degrees).

The mound, with those two depressions at its peak, suggests the possibility that it is some form of ice/mud volcano, similar to the suspected ice/mud volcanoes routinely seen in the northern lowland plains of Utopia Basin.
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Further explorations at candidate Starship Mars landing site

Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit near candidate Starship landing sites
Click for full image.

Close-up on exposed lower layer

Cool image time! Even though it appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of images of its candidate landing sites surrounding the Erebus Montes mountains in the Arcadia Planitia plains in the Martian northern lowlands, this does not mean that other planetary scientists are not asking for more images of this region, for their own scientific research.

The photograph on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was released in the early November image download from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned but dubbed “Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit,” it shows what appears at first glance to be a relatively featureless area south of Erebus Montes, out in the flat plains.

A closer look suggests otherwise. For one, the full image shows darker and lighter areas. The close-up to the right, its location indicated by the white box in the wider image above, also shows several intriguing depressions that appear to be revealing a knobby lower layer. In fact, in the full image it appears that the darker areas are areas where material has covered that knobby lower layer. Where it is bright the ground resembles the floors of these depressions, knobby and complex.

I do not know why they label this the “beginning” of a glacial unit. What I do know is that the research of this region has consistently found evidence of a lot of buried ice. To quote Donna Viola of the University of Arizona noted, “I think you could dig anywhere to get your water ice.” The knobby features to me suggest a surface that is showing signs of sublimation, where the exposed ice is slowly eroding. Think of what happens to a block of ice when you spray warm water on it. As it melts it leaves behind just these kinds of strange formations.

Overview of all MRO images at Starship candidate landing site

The red box in the map on the right shows the location of this photograph relative to the other images taken for SpaceX. The white boxes are the company’s images taken for Starship. The black boxes are the images it obtained in 2017 when it was thinking of sending a Dragon capsule to Mars.

This map does not show all images taken by MRO’s high resolution camera in this area, but the coverage is very scattered, with many gaps. Over time I suspect these gaps will be filled more quickly than other northern plain regions, because the scientists know that SpaceX has an interest in this area. That interest means there is an increased chance that a mission will fly here in the relatively near future, which in turn is going to generate more scientific interest as well.

More potential Starship landing sites on Mars

Starship landing sites

On August 28, 2019 I broke the story that SpaceX is beginning to obtain images of candidate Starship landing sites from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Many news sources, skilled in their ability to rewrite press releases, saw my article and immediately posted stories essentially repeating what I had found, including my geological reasoning. Some did some more digging and, because they came out a few days later they were able to take advantage of the next MRO team image release, issued on August 30th, to find a few more candidate site images.

Those additional images included the remaining stereo images for all the images in my August post, indicated by the white boxes in the overview map above. They also included two new locations, indicated by the black boxes. One was of one more location in the easternmost hills of Erebus Montes. The other was a stereo pair for one entirely different landing location, farther to the west in the mountains dubbed Phlegra Montes, a location that SpaceX had previously been considering, but until this image had not been included in its MRO image requests.

The grey boxes in the map above show the approximate locations of images not yet officially released by MRO. Though unreleased, their existence is still public knowledge, as they are listed as already acquired images in the HiWish database. Below are links to the three upcoming new images (the second stereo images for locations #1 and #2 are not included)

Both the Phlegra Montes location and #3 above appear to be looking at soft slushy material that might have a lot of water just below the surface.
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