Tag Archives: geology

Monitoring a fresh-looking Martian landslide

2012 image of Martian landslide
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2018 image of Martian landslide
Click for full image

Time for two cool images! To the right are two images taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the top one taken in April 2012, and the bottom taken in December 2018. Both have been cropped and reduced slightly in resolution to post here.

The second image is trying to answer, in only a small way, one of the most fundamental questions of the Martian environment: How fast does it change? The images from orbit have periodically seen evidence of new impacts. MRO images have tracked dust devil tracks. And we know that somehow water, ice, wind and volcanic activity have eroded and reshaped the surface over eons.

What we don’t know truly and with detail is the pace of these changes, with any accuracy. The pace of some things over time seems obvious. For example, Mars’s inactive but gigantic volcanoes suggest that once volcanism was very active, but over time has ceased so that today it is unclear if any is occurring. Similarly, the geological evidence suggests that in the far past water flowed on the surface, producing catastrophic floods. Now that liquid water is all but gone, and this erosion process as ceased.
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A second Greenland crater discovered?

Scientists are now claiming they have found a second crater buried under Greenland’s icecap.

To confirm his suspicion about the possible presence of a second impact crater, MacGregor studied the raw radar images that are used to map the topography of the bedrock beneath the ice, including those collected by NASA’s Operation IceBridge. What he saw under the ice were several distinctive features of a complex impact crater: a flat, bowl-shaped depression in the bedrock that was surrounded by an elevated rim and centrally located peaks, which form when the crater floor equilibrates post-impact. Though the structure isn’t as clearly circular as the Hiawatha crater, MacGregor estimated the second crater’s diameter at 22.7 miles. Measurements from Operation IceBridge also revealed a negative gravity anomaly over the area, which is characteristic of impact craters.

“The only other circular structure that might approach this size would be a collapsed volcanic caldera,” MacGregor said. “But the areas of known volcanic activity in Greenland are several hundred miles away. Also, a volcano should have a clear positive magnetic anomaly, and we don’t see that at all.”

It must be emphasized that this conclusion remains very uncertain. What they have found is a depression that has features indicative of an impact crater, data that is far from sufficient to definitively prove the crater is real.

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Mysterious dark-toned Martian terrain

Dark toned ridge in Martian southern highlands
Click for full resolution image

Cool image time! The picture on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was part of the January image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows an area in the Martian southern highlands where the surface suddenly gets darker, for no obvious reason.

The uncaptioned release image is titled “Dark-Toned Ridge at Junction with Dark-Toned Plain.” From the image itself it is hard to understand this title. In the full image the darkest terrain is a strip in the center, with slightly lighter dark terrain on either side, and the lightest terrain to the north or south. The photograph however does not show us how far this dark terrain extends to the west or east.

Two Mars Odyssey image strips of less resolution, here and here, show that this region is filled with several large patches of dark-tone surface. With this particular patch the center dark ridge is surrounded by that slightly lighter dark area.

MRO itself has not taken many images of this region, as shown in the overview image below. The red rectangles indicate MRO’s high resolution photographs, with this image indicated by the cross. At this low resolution this region seems somewhat nondescript. The Mars Odyssey image strips show that there many features here, but with little significant relief.

Location of dark toned ridge

At high resolution there does not appear to be much difference between the darker and lighter areas. The lighter areas in general seem less rough and at a slightly lower elevation, but both areas are dominated by ridges and dunes trending southwest-to-northeast.

Why is this slightly higher region darker? Let’s assume that this darker material was a lava flow overlaying the surface. Over eons wind erosion, trending southwest-to-northwest, roughly eroded both it and the lower layers around it, leaving behind this rough corroded terrain. The different make-up of the darker material allows it to erode in a rougher manner.

While possibly correct, I would not bet much money on this guess. It is not clear it is lava. It is not clear that it is a flow. It does not explain why there are two areas of different darkness. And it certainly not clear what the make-up of any of this stuff is.

This is simply another cool mystery on the Martian surface.

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The location for a future Martian colony?

Pit draining into Kasei Valles

Regular readers of this webpage will know that I am a caver, and am fascinated with the pits and caves that have so far been identified on Mars, as illustrated by an essay I wrote only last week.

Some of the cave research I have cited has being led by planetary scientist Glen Cushing of the U.S. Geological Survey. Two weeks ago Dr. Cushing sent me a slew of pictures of caves/pits that he has accumulated over the years, many of which he has not yet been able to highlight in a paper. At least two were images that I had already featured on Behind the Black, here and here.

One pit image however I had never seen. A cropped and reduced close-up is shown on the right, with the full photograph viewable by clicking on the image. In many ways this pit is reminiscent of many pits on Mars. Its northern rim appears to be an overhang several hundred feet deep that might have an underground passage continuing to the north. The southern lip is inviting in that its slope appears to be very accessible for vehicles, meaning this pit/cave might be a good location to build a first colony.

Because of that accessible southern lip, I decided to do more digging about this particular pit. I was quickly able to find the uncaptioned release of complete image by doing a quick search through the image catalog of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera. That image, reduced and cropped to post here, is shown below, on the right.
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The many pits/caves of Mars

Sinkhole in Martian northern lowlands with dark seep

Time for many cool images! Over the years I have written frequently about the pits/caves on Mars, in both magazine articles and the many posts here at Behind the Black. The following posts are the most significant, with the June 9, 2015 providing the best geological background to many of these pits, especially the many located near the giant volcanoes of Mars.

As I wrote in that June 9, 2015 post:
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Well water likely available across Mars

Conceptual model of Martian deep basin evolution

A science paper released today and available for download [pdf] cites evidence from about two dozen deep impact craters located from the equator to 37 degrees north latitude that Mars has a ground ice table at an elevation that also corresponds to other shoreline features. From the abstract:

Observations in the northern hemisphere show evidence of a planet‐wide groundwater system on Mars. The elevations of these water‐related morphologies in all studied basins lie within the same narrow range of depths below Mars datum and notably coincide with the elevation of some ocean shorelines proposed by previous authors.

The image above and on the right shows the middle stage of their conceptual model for the evolution of these deep basins and how that evolution results in many of the geological features seen in many places on Mars, such as the features I have highlighted on Behind the Black previously here and here.

From their conclusion:
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Weird Martian fracture feature

Fractured collapse feature on Mars

Cool image time! When I first looked at the high resolution Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image on the right, my immediate reaction was, “What the heck is that?” The image to the right is cropped and reduced, but if you click on it you can see the full image at high resolution.

The fractured terrain appears to be all within a collapse. To my eye it appears that while the overall surface has sunk, the fractures indicate an area where there has been an eruption upward, which after the eruption collapsed again, so that the fractured area remains at the apparent bottom of the collapse sink. I was immediately reminded of Upheaval Dome in Yellowstone National Park, which some geologists believe was formed by a “salt bubble” rising upward to create a salt dome.

A thick layer of salt, formed by the evaporation of ancient landlocked seas, underlies much of southeastern Utah and Canyonlands National Park. When under pressure from thousands of feet of overlying rock, the salt can flow plastically, like ice moving at the bottom of a glacier. In addition, salt is less dense than sandstone. As a result, over millions of years salt can flow up through rock layers as a “salt bubble”, rising to the surface and creating salt domes that deform the surrounding rock.

Context image for fracture feature

The process and materials involved were certainly different on Mars. Nonetheless, it does appear we are looking at an eruptive feature unrelated to molten lava. The context image to the right, showing this feature’s location in Mars’ vast northern lowlands, also shows that it has occurred on terrain that has bulged upwards relative to the surrounding lowlands. Nearby MRO images also show similar bulge/collapse features.

To decipher the geological mystery here, we would also need to know when this happened and whether there ever was a liquid ocean residing on top of it, before, during, or after the eruption. We also do not know well the make-up of the underground materials, including whether any frozen water and salt is present.

To be honest, we really don’t know much. I am sure a planetary scientist studying this feature could fill us in on some of these details, such as information provided by the colors in the color image. Even so, I am sure any good scientist would also admit to unknowns.

To get some real answers, we need to be there. It is as simple as that.

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Martian glacier with moraine?

Glacier flow on Mars, with moraine

Cool image time! In the past two decades numerous images and studies of the Martian terrain produced by orbiters have shown us landslides, lava flows, water and ice produced flows, and many glacial features, all vaguely familiar but often having components reminding us of the alien nature of the Martian landscape. I have posted many here at Behind the Black. (Just do a search here for the words “Mars flow” and you will have a wealth of cool images and alien geological features to explore.)

The image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows another such feature, but this time it is less alien and more resembling a typical Earth glacier, flowing downhill slowly and pushing a moraine of debris before it. The picture was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was part of the January image release. If you click on the image you can see the complete photograph at full resolution.

The release has no caption, but is titled “Tongue-Shaped Glacier in Centauri Montes,” referring to the largest tongue-shaped flow on the left. This feature, more than any other in the image, resembles closely many glaciers on Earth. It even has an obvious moraine at its head. As the glacial flow pushed downward slowly it gathered a pile of material that eventually began to act almost like a dam.

The location of this feature is intriguing in its own right.
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Rock from Earth, found on Moon?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists studying rocks brought back by the Apollo 14 lunar mission have concluded that one sample originally came from the Earth, and if so would be the oldest known Earth rock.

It is possible that the sample is not of terrestrial origin, but instead crystallized on the Moon, however, that would require conditions never before inferred from lunar samples. It would require the sample to have formed at tremendous depths, in the lunar mantle, where very different rock compositions are anticipated. Therefore, the simplest interpretation is that the sample came from Earth.

The team’s analyses are providing additional details about the sample’s history. The rock crystallized about 20 kilometers beneath Earth’s surface 4.0-4.1 billion years ago. It was then excavated by one or more large impact events and launched into cis-lunar space. Previous work by the team showed that impacting asteroids at that time were producing craters thousands of kilometers in diameter on Earth, sufficiently large to bring material from those depths to the surface. Once the sample reached the lunar surface, it was affected by several other impact events, one of which partially melted it 3.9 billion years ago, and which probably buried it beneath the surface. The sample is therefore a relic of an intense period of bombardment that shaped the Solar System during the first billion years. After that period, the Moon was affected by smaller and less frequent impact events. The final impact event to affect this sample occurred about 26 million years ago, when an impacting asteroid hit the Moon, producing the small 340 meter-diameter Cone Crater, and excavating the sample back onto the lunar surface where astronauts collected it almost exactly 48 years ago (January 31–February 6, 1971).

The scientists also admit that their conclusion is controversial and will be disputed. If true, however, it suggests that there is significant material on the Moon from the early Earth that can provide a window into parts our planet’s history that are presently inaccessible.

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Earth’s magnetic field undergoing unexpected changes

The uncertainty of science: For reasons that scientists do not understand, the Earth’s magnetic field has been undergoing unexpected shifts in the past two years, causing its north pole to move significantly and somewhat quickly from Canada across to Siberia.

Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January, they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.

Note that they have delayed the release of the World Magnetic Model until January 30, claiming the delay is caused by the government shutdown. Seems bogus to me. As I have already noted, these scientists aren’t slaves. If they think this is so important, and they have completed their work (which the article suggests they have), they can release the model, regardless of the federal government’s funding.

Hat tip reader Stephen Taylor.

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Dried mud cracks on Mars?

Mud cracks on Mars?

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and rotated to post here, was one of the uncaptioned photographs in the December Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image release. If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph. I have cropped the most interesting area, though cracks can be seen in other areas in the image.

What we appear to have here is a darker lower valley filled with dried mud, which over time has cracked as it dried. At its edges there appear to be ripples, almost like one sees on the beach as waves wash the shore. The perimeter slopes even show darker streaks as if the water in some places lapped up the slopes, and in others flowed downward into the valley.

Later, several meteorite impacts occurred, the largest of which produced concentric dried cracks on its outside perimeter. This impact also provides a rough idea of the depth of the mud in this valley.

Mud of course suggests that this lower valley once was filled with water. Was it? It is not possible now to come to a firm conclusion, but this image’s location shown by the red dot in the overview map below and to the right, provides a clue that strengthens this hypothesis.
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The lava tubes and canyons of Cerberus Fossae

Cerberus Fossae rock falls

Cool image time! In the November image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) I found the image on the right (cropped to post here), dubbed “Possible Rock Falls on Steep Slopes in Cerberus Fossae.” You can see the full image by clicking on the photo on the right.

The cropped section focuses on the steep cliffs of this deep canyon, formed when lava flowed down from the giant volcano Elysium Mons almost like water, following the faults created by the bulging volcanoes to carve a long series of parallel canyons more seven hundred miles in length. Not only can individual boulders be seen piled up on the base of the canyon, you can see on the lower right a large section of cliff that has broken off and partly fallen, propped now precariously on the cliff’s steep slope. I would not want to be hiking below it at the base of this canyon.

Elysium Mons and Cereberus Fossae

This photograph itself made me more interested in looking at other MRO images of Cerberus Fossae. The context map on the right shows that MRO has taken numerous images along the length of these faults, indicated by the red boxes. The location of the above image is shown by the white cross, at the western end where the canyons tend to be steep, deep, and pronounced. In taking a look at the many images of Cerberus Fossae, I found a variety of canyons, plus pit chains, lava tube skylights, and one especially intriguing image, posted below, that shows what appears to be an extended collapse along the length of what was once an underground lava tube.
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Present and future landing sites on Mars

With InSight’s landing on Mars set for 11:54 am (Pacific) this coming Monday, November 26, 2018, I decided to put together a map of Mars showing the location of all the successful landers/rovers, adding the landing sites for the planned landers/rovers through 2020. This will give some context to InSight’s landing site.

Landing sites on Mars

The map does not show the landing sites for the failed Soviet, American, and British landers.

As I noted in describing the Mars2020 landing site, the location of the bulk of these landing sites, along the transition zone from the southern highlands and the northern lowlands, demonstrates the areas of the planet that interest geologists the most. It is here that we find many shoreline features, suggestive of the ocean that many scientists theorize existed intermittently in the northern lowlands. It is here that planetary scientists can quickly gather the most information about Martian geological history. And it is here that they have the opportunity to study the widest range of rock types.

From an explorer’s perspective, however, this approach has its limits. It does not provide us a look at a wide variety of locations. It is not directly aimed at finding lower latitude locations where ice might actually exist. And it is decidedly not focused in studying the planet from the perspective of future colonists. I am sometimes frustrated that we have as yet no plans to send any rovers into Marineris Valles, or to the western slopes of Arsia Mons, the southern most volcano in the chain of three giant volcanoes where there are indications that ice might exist underground, or to any of the places where caves are known to exist where a colony could be built more easily. In fact, the caves on the slopes of Arsia Mons seems a prime exploration target.

Eventually these locations will be explored, likely by private landers aimed at scouting out locations for future private settlements. I am just impatient.

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Timestorm Films – Nox Atacama

An evening pause: From the youtube website:

The Atacama desert is home to the darkest and cleanest skies in the world. …The environment is harsh though. Filmed in freezing temperatures, altitudes up to 5000m/16000ft, salt lakes and icy slopes, the Atacama is not friendly to life and equipment.

Hat tip Willi Kusche.

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The soft landslides of Mars

A soft avalanche on Mars

Context image of landslide

The light gravity of Mars, combined with different materials, a lot of dust, and a geological history different from Earth, produces events that — though reminiscent of similar geological events on Earth — are definitely not the same.

The image above, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was one of the many uncaptioned images released in the November archive. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution version. It shows the tongue of a landslide inside a crater located in the planet’s southern highlands.

You can immediately see why I call it a soft landslide. The craters on its top are barely visible, as if they hit a soft surface that absorbed most of the impact. The grooves spreading southward in the slide suggest that this solid material flowed almost like mud. And the soft, smooth surface head of the slide suggests an almost liquid-like flow. As far as I can tell, this landslide had few large boulders. It was made up instead of small particles of about the same size.

To the right is an image showing the wider context of the above image, taken by Mars Odyssey and cropped and annotated by me to post here. The white box shows the entire area photographed by the full resolution image of the landslide, with the tongue of the landslide at the bottom of the box. If you look at the floor of this crater, you can see what looks like the ghost of a past smaller impact, seemingly buried in either a field of lava or soft dusty regolith. The smoothness of the crater floor also suggests a material softness, allowing it to settle into a pondlike featureless flat plain.
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The fractured floor of Komarov Crater

Fractured floor of Komarov Crater

Cool image time! The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) oblique image on the right, reduced significantly from the original to post here, shows the deeply fractured floor of Komarov Crater on the Moon’s far side. As noted at the image link,

The spectacular fractures that cut across the floor of Komarov crater [about 85 kilometers or 50 miles diameter] were formed when magma rose from the mantle, uplifting and fracturing the crater in the process. In this case the magma did not erupt to the surface, thus the fractures remain visible.

The Komarov fractures are quite large, the major left-to-right fracture that cuts across the center of the scene is over 500 meters deep [1,600 feet] and 2500 meters wide [1.5 miles]. When did they form? The large number of craters superimposed on the floor and fractures testifies to their ancient ages. Likely they are of the same vintage (>2.6 billion years) as the Mare Moscoviense lava plains just to the north

An overview of Komarov Crater as well as other LRO images of it can be found here.

The question that comes to my mind is the relative rarity of craters with such large fractures on their floors. I have noted this for Mars as well. It is expected that there is melt on the floor of all large impact craters. Why do a few produce such pronounced fractures, while most do not? This website posits one explanation, but its complexity leaves me unsatisfied. It also doesn’t explain why it happens only rarely.

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Scientists discover giant impact crater buried under Greenland ice

Scientists have discovered the existence of a giant impact crater buried under the Greenland ice.

An international team of researchers, including a NASA glaciologist, has discovered a large meteorite impact crater hiding beneath more than a half-mile of ice in northwest Greenland. The crater — the first of any size found under the Greenland ice sheet — is one of the 25 largest impact craters on Earth, measuring roughly 1,000 feet deep and more than 19 miles in diameter, an area slightly larger than that inside Washington’s Capital Beltway.

They think, based on the data, that this crater is very young, one of the youngest known on Earth. At the most is is no more than 3 million years old.

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Volcanic rivers on Mars

Granicus Valles

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was part of the November image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). If you click on the image you can see the full resolution picture.

The uncaptioned release webpage is dubbed “Faults in Granicus Valles.” The image itself only shows a small part of Granicus Valles, named after a river in Turkey, that flows down from the estern slopes of the giant volcano Elysium Mons. While far smaller than the four big Martian volcanoes in the Tharsis region to the east and near Marines Valles (which I highlight often), Elysium Mons still outshines anything on Earth at a height of almost 30,000 feet and a width of 150 miles. It sits at about the same northern latitude of Olympus Mons, but all by itself, rising up at the very northern edge of the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern plains, with the vast Utopia Basin, the second deepest basin on Mars, to the west.

Overview of Elysium Mons and Granicus Valles

Granicus Valles itself is almost five hundred miles long. At its beginning it flows in a single straight fault, but once it enters the northern plains of Utopia Basin it begins to meander and break up into multiple tributaries. The MRO image above shows only a tiny portion in the northern plains, as illustrated by the white box in the overview map to the left.
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Evidence of nitrogen ice glaciers on Pluto

Using data sent back by New Horizons during its fly-by of Pluto scientists now think they have identified land forms created by past nitrogen ice glaciers.

The washboard and fluted terrain … occur at the location on Sputnik Planitia’s perimeter where elevations and slopes leading into the surrounding uplands are lowest, and also where a major tectonic system coincides with the edge of Sputnik Planitia. The low elevation of the area makes it a natural setting for past coverage by nitrogen ice glaciers, as indicated by modeling of volatile behavior on Pluto performed by Dr. Bertrand at Ames.

Through comparison of the washboard and fluted texture with parallel chains of elongated sublimation pits (depressions in the surface formed where ice turns directly into a gas) seen in southern Sputnik Planitia, the ridges are interpreted to represent water ice debris liberated by tectonism of underlying crust. This water ice debris was buoyant in the denser, pitted glacial nitrogen ice that is interpreted to have formerly covered this area, and collected on the floors of the elongated pits. After the nitrogen ice receded via sublimation, the debris was left as the aligned ridges, mimicking the sublimation texture – washboard ridges where deposited on flat terrain, and fluted ridges where deposited on steeper slopes.

This is strange stuff. The solid bedrock here, water ice, will float on the nitrogen ice sitting on top of it. Thus, the material that wants to sublimate away, nitrogen, sometimes has to fight its way past the water ice that has risen to the top of the pile.

To put it mildly, we hardly understand these alien processes. This research is merely a first stab, the first hand-waving.

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More Pits on Mars!

Pits near Arsia Mons

Cool image time! In the November image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) were three images, dubbed by me in the collage above as number one, number two, and number three, showing pits south of Arsia Mons, the southernmost volcano in the chain of three giant volcanoes to the east of Mars’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons, and to the west of the Marineris Valles valley.

Mars overview showing pit locations

The image on the right provides the geographical context of the three pits. They are all south of the volcano on the vast lava flow plains that surround it. The location of pits #1 and #2 is especially intriguing, on the east and west edges of what appears to be a large lava flow that had burst out from the volcano, leaving a large lava field covering a vast area several hundred miles across just to the south. You can also see a similar large lava field to the north of the volcano. Both fields appear to have been formed when lava poured through the breaks created by the fault that cuts through the volcano from the northeast to the southwest.
» Read more

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The vast northern plains of Mars

The vast northern plains of Mars

Cool image time! Actually, this image, found in the October image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), is not that interesting, in its own right. Context is all!

The image on the right is a small section cropped and reduced in resolution from the full image, which you can see by clicking on it. It shows one of the only interesting features in this long image strip, a small mesa sticking out all by itself in a flat featureless plain pockmarked by various small craters.

The release has no caption, though it is entitled “Northern Plains Survey.” The northern plains, while having a lot of interesting features that attract the attention of planetary scientists and thus get photographed at high resolution, is mostly featureless, at least at the resolution of the wide field survey cameras on many Mars orbiters. In order to know what is really there, they need to take high resolution images systematically, of which this image is obviously a part.

Overview image

The problem is that there is so much ground to cover. This particular image was taken of a spot in the middle of the plains just to the north of the drainage outlets from Valles Marineris, as shown by the context map to the right. The tiny white spot to the right in the middle of the blue plains north of those drainage outlets is the location of this image.

Detail area of overview map

To understand how much ground needs to be covered, to the right is a close-up of the area shown by the white box in the first image above, with red rectangles indicating where MRO has already taken images. The white cross is the subject image. As you can see, most of this immense plain has not yet been imaged. It is almost as if they threw a dart to pick this one location. Most everything around it remains unseen at high resolution. Thus, to understand the geology of this one image is hampered because the surrounding terrain remains unknown, in close detail.

Mars is a big place. It is an entire planet, with the same land surface as the Earth’s continents. It still contains many mysteries and unexplored places. It will take generations to see it all.

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The steep slumping wall of a Martian volcano caldera

Caldera wall

Cool image time. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team today released a nice captioned image of the steep wall of the caldera of Ascraeus Mons, the northernmost of the three giant volcanoes that lie to the east of Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano of all. The image on the right, reduced and cropped, shows that steep wall, with full image available by clicking on it. The caption from the release focuses on the fluted upper parts of the wall.

We can see chutes carved into the soft dust that has built up on the slope, with some similarities to gully landforms elsewhere on the planet.

More revealing to me is how this image reveals the slumping that is slowing eroding the caldera’s walls while also making that caldera larger. First, the plateau above the cliff shows multiple small cliffs and pit chains, all more or less parallel to the wall. This suggests that the plateau is over time breaking apart and falling into that caldera. Think of it as an avalanche in slow motion, with the upper plateau separating into chunks as sections slowly tilt down toward eventual collapse. As these chunks separate, they cause cracks to form in that plateau, and hence the parallel cliffs and strings of pits.

On the floor of the caldera we can see evidence of past chunks that did fall, piled up in a series terraces at the base of the wall. These are covered with the soft dust that dominates Martian geology. That soft dust also apparently comprises much of the wall’s materials, and almost acts like a liquid as it periodically flows down the wall, producing the chutes at the top of the wall.

The weak Martian gravity here is an important factor that we on Earth have difficulty understanding. It allows for a much steeper terrain, that also allows structurally weaker materials to hold together that would be impossible on Earth.This image gives a taste of this alien geology, on a large scale.

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Stripes on Dione

Using data produced by Cassini while orbiting Saturn scientists have discovered long narrow stripes on the moon Dione.

Dione’s linear virgae are generally long (10 to 100s of kilometers), narrow (less than 5 kilometers) and brighter than the surrounding terrains. The stripes are parallel, appear to overlie other features and are unaffected by topography, suggesting they are among the youngest surfaces on Dione.

“Their orientation, parallel to the equator, and linearity are unlike anything else we’ve seen in the Solar System,” Patthoff said. “If they are caused by an exogenic source, that could be another means to bring new material to Dione. That material could have implications for the biological potential of Dione’s subsurface ocean.”

That they cut across the topography implies strongly that they were laid down from above, after the surface irregularities were created.

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Giant ice pinnacles on Europa

In a new paper scientists note that getting the congressionally mandated Europa Clipper safely to the surface of Jupiter’s moon might be threatened by the existence there of forests of giant five-story high ice pinnacles.

Probes have shown that Europa’s ice-bound surface is riven with fractures and ridges, and new work published today in Nature Geosciences suggests any robotic lander could face a nasty surprise, in the form of vast fields of ice spikes, each standing as tall as a semitruck is long.

Such spikes are created on Earth in the frigid tropical peaks of the Andes Mountains, where they are called “pentinentes,” for their resemblance to devout white-clad monks. First described by Charles Darwin, pentinentes are sculpted by the sun in frozen regions that experience no melt; instead, the fixed patterns of light cause the ice to directly vaporize, amplifying minute surface variations that result in small hills and shadowed hollows. These dark hollows absorb more sunlight than the bright peaks around them, vaporizing down further in a feedback loop.

This work is based on computer models, so it has a lot of uncertainty. It also appears to assume that these pentinentes will be widespread across Europa’s equatorial regions, something so unlikely I find it embarrassing that they even imply it. I guarantee Europa’s surface will be more varied than that. If they are designing Europa Clipper properly, it will go into orbit first to scout out the best landing site, and will be able to avoid such hazards.

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Occator Crater on Ceres

Occator Crater

Cool image time! As Dawn’s long and successful mission to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres winds down, the spacecraft is taking a slew of spectacular close-up images of Ceres. The image on the right, cropped slightly to post here, is an oblique view of Occator Crater, home to the double bright spots that scientists now believe are caused by the upward seepage of a water-based brine from the interior.

The image was taken August 14, 2018 from a distance of 1149 miles. It clearly shows how the bright spots are depressions, not raised features. Additional images released this week of the floor of the crater capture a complex fracture network (seen here and here) with some fractures apparently quite deep.

All this suggests that the surface crust of Ceres is not very structurally strong, allowing a churning process that plows material up and down. The data also suggests that even on a small planetary body like Ceres the geological processes are going to be complex and often on-going, depending on material, energy, and the size of the body.

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Dust storms spotted on Titan

Scientists reviewing Cassini data have identified dust storms for the first time of Saturn’s moon Titan.

When Rodriguez and his team first spotted three unusual equatorial brightenings in infrared images taken by Cassini around the moon’s 2009 northern equinox, they thought they might be the same kind of methane clouds; however, an investigation revealed they were something completely different. “From what we know about cloud formation on Titan, we can say that such methane clouds in this area and in this time of the year are not physically possible,” said Rodriguez. “The convective methane clouds that can develop in this area and during this period of time would contain huge droplets and must be at a very high altitude — much higher than the 6 miles (10 kilometers) that modeling tells us the new features are located.”

The researchers were also able to rule out that the features were actually on the surface of Titan in the form of frozen methane rain or icy lavas. Such surface spots would have a different chemical signature and would remain visible for much longer than the bright features in this study, which were visible for only 11 hours to five weeks.

In addition, modeling showed that the features must be atmospheric but still close to the surface — most likely forming a very thin layer of tiny solid organic particles. Since they were located right over the dune fields around Titan’s equator, the only remaining explanation was that the spots were actually clouds of dust raised from the dunes.

Obviously there are large uncertainties here. Nonetheless, the conclusion is a reasonable one, as it is expected that such dust storms would occur on Titan.

Posted just outside Zion National Park in the town of Springdale.

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Mountains on the Moon

Mountains on the Moon

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced slightly to post here, shows several high mountains on the far side of the Moon. If you click on the image you can see it at full resolution.

The summit of the unnamed peak in the foreground (50.2° S, 236.6° E) has an elevation of 6710 meters, about 7000 meters (about 23,000 feet) of relief relative to the low point at the bottom of the image. The two peaks on the horizon, 200 kilometers in the distance (about 125 miles), have summit elevations of 4320 meters (14,200 feet) and 4680 meters (15,350), respectively and both rise more than 6000 meters (almost 20,000 feet) above their surroundings.

In the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team release in June, they noted that the high peak here is actually taller than Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest peak within the U.S. And it has no name. They also note that the peak is likely 4 billion years old, and has experienced extensive erosion in that time, meaning that it is also likely shorter than it once was.

I don’t have anything to add, other than this would be an amazing place to put up a resort, with trails taking you to the top of the mountains. In the lighter gravity, the hike would actually be somewhat easy, even wearing a spacesuit. And you wouldn’t have to worry about a thinning atmosphere as you climbed higher, as you do on Earth. You’d be carrying it with you.

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Baby volcanoes on Mars

Pitted cones on Mars

Most people are very aware of Mars’ giant volcanoes. This week the science team for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) decided to highlight instead a location on Mars filled with relatively tiny volcanoes. The image on the right is only one small section from the full image, and shows some of these pitted cones, as well the strange nearby badlands. From their caption:

The origins of these pitted mounds or cratered cones are uncertain. They could be the result of the interaction of lava and water, or perhaps formed from the eruption of hot mud originating from beneath the surface.

These features are very interesting to scientists who study Mars, especially to those involved in the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission. If these mounds are indeed mud–related, they may be one of the long sought after sources for transient methane on Mars.

The age of these pitted cones is not known. They might be still active, or have sat on Mars unchanged for eons.

Overview map

As always, context is crucial for gaining a better understanding of what we are looking at. The map on the right shows that these particular cones, indicated by the white cross, are located in an area of those plains dubbed Chryse Planitia, part of the vast northern plains of Mars, an area where some scientists think an intermittent ocean might have once existed. As you can see, this is also the region that took most of the apparent drainage running off the slopes of the planet’s giant volcanoes.

Nor are these cones unique in this region. MRO has taken a good scattering of images at this general location (41 degrees north, 332 degrees east), and throughout the surrounding terrain are many more of these pitted cones.

If these cones are a source of the transient methane on Mars, then the Trace Gas Orbiter should eventually see a concentration of methane above them. This would not prove them to be the source, but it would make them a much more intriguing target for a later rover mission.

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Looking for Marsquakes

After eight and a half years of study of one particular very young fault system on Mars using high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have found no evidence that any quakes occurred there in that time.

The team studied images of Mars’s surface over nearly a decade to look for changes that might have been caused by marsquakes. The researchers used images of Mars’s surface from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and applied Co-registration of Optically Sensed Images and Correlation (COSI-Corr)—software that has been validated to track terrestrial glaciers, landslides, and quakes on Earth, as well as dune movement on Mars itself—to hunt for signs of displacement near fault zones.

The researchers focused on the Cerberus Fossae fault system, the youngest fault system on the Red Planet and thus the most likely to still be active. They used the average coregistration performance of each study image to determine that this method should be able to detect fault slip rates of 0.1–10 millimeters a year.

The team identified only one displacement signal that could have been interpreted as evidence of a marsquake—but dismissed it as the result of a topographic artifact. Their results suggest that no seismic movement occurred in the Cerberus Fossae area over the course of the study, which spanned 8.5 Earth years’ worth of images from the planet.

This suggests, but does not prove, that Mars has very few quakes. We shall know more when InSight lands on Mars on November 26.

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Volcanic rills and lava tubes on Mars

Rills and lava tubes on Pavonis Mons

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped somewhat to show here, was taken by Mars Odyssey of the southwestern slope of Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano of the line of three giant volcanoes located between the biggest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, and the biggest canyon in the solar system, Marineris Valles. The slope goes down to the south, from the top to the bottom of the image. As noted on the image page,

The channel and nearby oval depressions are both related to the flow of lava. Narrow lava flows can create channels. The cooling of the top of the channel will form a roof over the flow, creating a tube beneath the surface. After the lava stops flowing the tube can empty, leaving a subsurface void. The roof will then collapse into the void forming the oval surface features.

I have added arrows to the image to draw your eye to the features that extend south in line with those oval depressions, eventually widening out to resemble a river delta, with the obvious rill probably indicating the lowest point in that delta.

Though the oval depressions are likely sections of a lava tube that collapsed, the features in line with those depressions suggest that the tube itself might still exist below the surface to the south, feeding into that delta where the rill meanders. It is also possible that my desire to find underground voids here, where glacier ice might possibly exist, might be skewing my conclusion. It could also be that the lava tube ended at these depressions, and what the features indicate is a wide surface flow, later embellished by the smaller flow of the meandering rill.

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