Tag Archives: geology

A hanging crater on Mars

Hanging crater
Click for full image.

Overview

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 1, 2020, and shows a truly intriguing crater that they dub a “Crater Hanging on Mesa Wall.”

Located in Deuteronilus Mensae, a chaos region of mesas and cross-crossing canyons in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands, the crater literally overhangs the edge of this canyon’s cliff. The overview map to the right, with this location indicated by the red box, illustrates what this region’s geology is like.

The most likely explanation is that the impact occurred prior to the creation of the canyon, and when the canyon eroded, the material in and of this crater was more resistant, probably because the impact had packed it together to increase its density.

At the same time, the features inside both craters in the photo, as well as below them on the floor of the canyon, suggest the presence of buried glaciers, something not unlikely at the 45 degree north latitude where this crater sits.

So, here’s a guess at the geological history. First we had the impact, then during the eons of glacial ebb and flow on Mars due to wide swings in the planet’s obliquity (its rotational tilt), the canyon was cut, with that erosion leaving the crater sitting high above the canyon floor below it.

One more curious detail: The material in the canyon seems asymmetric, suggesting that the crater actually dips down toward the canyon, as if it as a unit has tilted to the east as the canyon was worn out below it.

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Two wedding cakes on Mars

Tall wedding cake on Mars
Click for full image.

It it time for two cool Martian images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Though both show features that are similar and likely had some comparable geological origins, they are located in two very different places on Mars and thus also had very different histories.

What makes them fun is how much both resemble classic tall wedding cakes, though the second has unfortunately fallen down and is no longer eatable.

The first, cropped on the right to post here, was taken on May 18, 2020, and is described by the science team as a “Tall Layered Mesa in Crater in Deuteronilus Mensae.” Deuteronilus Mensae is in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands, and being in the high mid-latitudes (42 degrees north) shows a lot of evidence of buried and eroded glaciers. Many of these glaciers are found inside craters.

What caused this layered mesa however to form is beyond me. It is taller than the crater in which it sits, as well as the surrounding terrain. A glacier would settle into the lowest regions, and would not last if exposed above the rim like this is. Its height suggests that the surrounding terrain was once much higher, and has been eroded away. Yet if so, why does this mesa also sit inside a depression?

The second “wedding cake” is even more intriguing, though less baffling.
» Read more

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A minor rill on the Moon

Kathleen, a rill on the Moon
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image above, reduced to post here, is a colorized digital terrain model produced from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) data. On top of the original mosaic of photos the LRO science team has overlaid the elevation data obtained by LRO’s laser altimeter. It shows a tadpole shaped pit dubbed Kathleen, with its tail trailing off to the southeast. As they note:

Kathleen is a pyroclastic vent with a sinuous rille (colloquially known as Rima Mozart [Not IAU confirmed]) that extends from the southeast end of the vent. Rilles are large channels formed by sustained channelized lava flows. This vent is a great location to investigate ancient volcanism on the Moon.

The elevation data reveals one interesting feature: The lowest part of the vent pit is not at its western end, where one would think at first glance, based on the general dip that produced the rill flowing to the east. That the lowest point is at the widest section of the pit instead suggests that this pit no longer looks as it did when it was venting. In the almost four billion years since it is thought all volcanic activity here ceased, there has been plenty of time for the slow erosion processes on the Moon, caused by radiation, micrometeorites, and the solar wind, to partly fill this pit and round out its cliff walls.

The two overview maps below provide some context.
» Read more

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More strange terrain in the Martian “Death Valley”

More strange terrain in Hellas Basin
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image, rotated cropped, and reduced to post here, might show what the science team for the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have labeled “strange banded terrain”, but anyone who has spent any time perusing images of Hellas Basin, what I have labeled the basement of Mars because it has the lowest elevation on the planet, will recognize the features.

They might be inexplicable, but for Hellas Basin they are entirely familiar. Just take a look at some of my earlier posts:
» Read more

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A gravel pile floating in space that might hit the Earth

flat rock near Osprey
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Come October the probe OSIRIS-REx will attempt a quick touchdown on the asteroid Bennu to grab some tiny particles, all smaller than 0.8 inches across.

Bennu is what scientists have described as a “rubble-pile” asteroid. They use that name because it is simply a conglomeration of a lot of rocks, pebbles, boulders, and stones, all jagged and of all sizes. The overall gravity has never been strong enough to squeeze them together, at least as far as we can see, and so they are piled up loosely across the asteroid’s surface wherever we look.

I think a better name for this asteroid would a floating gravel pile, since the material on it, as clearly shown in the image to the right (reduced and rotated to post here), more resembles the tailings one finds at a mine or quarry. This photo was taken by OSIRIS-REx on May 26, 2020 during its first dress rehearsal over its back-up touch-and-go sample grab site, Osprey. As the release caption notes,

The field of view is 12 ft (3.8 m). For reference, the bright rock [near] the tip of the boulder is 1 ft (0.3 m) across, which is about the size of a loaf of bread.

I have rotated the image 90 degrees so that east is up, because the full mosaic of the entire Osprey landing site, shown below, is oriented that way, and by rotating it to match it is easier to locate this image within it.
» Read more

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Enigmatic layering and chasms on Mars

Enigmatic layering and chasms
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Overview map

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on April 28, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (MRO). The science team entitled it “Enigmatic Uplifts in Echus Montes,” indicating a sense of bafflement on their part about this geology.

The features here are certainly somewhat puzzling. At first glance the terrain is reminiscent of Martian chaos terrain, mesas cut by canyons in an almost random pattern. As I explained at the link,

Chaos terrain is typically a collection of mesas separated by straight-lined canyons. It is found in many places on Mars, most often in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might once have existed. It is believed to form by erosion, possibly caused by either flowing water or ice, moving along fault lines. As the erosion widened the faults, they turned into canyons separating closely packed mesas. With time, the canyons widened and the mesas turned into a collection of hills.

What makes this particular image puzzling however is that there seem to be multiple layers of mesas and canyons. Look at the top of the rectangular mesa in the upper middle of the image. It appears to have its own miniature chaos terrain on its plateau. Somehow that first layer of chaos was abandoned when the more prominent larger canyons started to form around it.

The location of this feature is indicated by the black cross on the overview map to the right. It is in the middle of the large and wide northward trending part of the giant valley dubbed Kasei Valles. And as usual, knowing the location helps explain what we are seeing.
» Read more

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Cassini evidence suggests volcanoes on Titan

Scientists are now proposing that. based on a close look at data and imagery of Titan from the Cassini mission archive, that this moon of Saturn might have volcanoes, and that they might even be active today.

Volcano-like features seen in polar regions of Saturn’s moon Titan by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft could be evidence of explosive eruptions that may continue today, according to a new paper by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Charles A. Wood and coauthor Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University.

Morphological features such as nested collapses, elevated ramparts, halos, and islands indicate that some of the abundant small depressions in the north polar region of Titan are volcanic collapse craters, according to “Morphologic Evidence for Volcanic Craters near Titan’s North Polar Region” that appears in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. A few similar depressions occur near the south pole of Titan. “The close association of the proposed volcanic craters with polar lakes is consistent with a volcanic origin through explosive eruptions followed by collapse, as either maars or calderas,” Wood said. “The apparent freshness of some craters may mean that volcanism has been relatively recently active on Titan or even continues today.”

The data being somewhat think, there is a great deal of uncertainty with this theory. Nonetheless, it makes perfect sense, and in fact it would be a surprise if some sort of volcanic activity was not occurring on Titan.

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Deciphering the strange geology of Mars — or anything!

Eroding Medusae Fossae Formation ash deposits
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image is for once not taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Instead, the image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by Mars Odyssey on April 5, 2020, and shows the scouring and erosion caused by winds over many eons in a region dubbed Zephyria Planum. (Note that the image might fool your eye. Sunlight is coming from the east, and the rough terrain at the top is higher than the smooth plain at the bottom.)

Years ago, when I first started to rummage through the archives of images from the various Mars orbiters, I would have seen this image and posted it because I was completely baffled by what I saw, and thought that mystery made it worth showing to the public. Since then my incessant probing of research papers as well as asking a lot of questions of scientists has taught me a lot more about what scientists now surmise of the Martian geology. This greater knowledge in turn makes it possible for me to look at an image like this and immediately make a reasonable guess as to an explanation. This photo, while still containing much that is mysterious, is no longer completely baffling to me.

This willingness to ask questions and dig deeper is fundamental to all things. To have a deeper understanding and not simply guess about any subject, you always have to recognize that your assumptions are likely wrong, and that to learn anything you have to repeatedly ask what I call “the next question.” The first answer will force you to recognize that your first guesses are wrong, raise more questions, which in turn will lead to more questions, and then more questions, and so forth.

Whether I am researching Mars or early space history or politics, this rule always applies. Don’t leap to a conclusion. Think it possible you could be wrong. Ask the next question. And the next. You will repeatedly find that what you thought you knew was not correct, and in the end you will gain a deeper understanding of what is actually known about any subject, as well as what is unknown. And knowing the unknowns is probably the most important thing you can learn.

To gain a better understanding of today’s particular image, our first questions must start with context. Where is this feature on Mars? What is the surrounding history of that location? And what is already known about this place?

The location immediately reveals a great deal, as shown in the overview map below.
» Read more

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Help scientists plan Curiosity’s future travels

The Curiosity science team is asking the help of ordinary citizens in improving the software it uses to plan Curiosity’s future travels.

Using the online tool AI4Mars to label terrain features in pictures downloaded from the Red Planet, you can train an artificial intelligence algorithm to automatically read the landscape.

Is that a big rock to the left? Could it be sand? Or maybe it’s nice, flat bedrock. AI4Mars, which is hosted on the citizen science website Zooniverse, lets you draw boundaries around terrain and choose one of four labels. Those labels are key to sharpening the Martian terrain-classification algorithm called SPOC (Soil Property and Object Classification).

The goal is not to have citizens plan the rover’s route, but to use their judgments to refine the software that the scientists and engineers use to plan the route. This refinement will also be applicable to Perseverance when it gets to Jezero Crater in February 2021.

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Isidis Basin, on whose margin Perseverance will roam

Pedestal craters in Isidis Basin
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Overview map

Today’s cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, highlights the floor of one of Mars’ largest basins, dubbed Isidis Planitia, and located at the transition zone between the planet’s northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands.

The overview map below of Isidis Basin provides some context. The white box shows where this particular image is located. Jezero Crater, indicated by the red circle (which is also about the size of the crater), is where the rover Perseverance is going to land and roam come February 2021, should all go well. For scale, Isidis is about the size of the eastern half of the United States. If Chicago was located at Jezero Crater, Baltimore would be on the basin’s eastern edge, at around 4 o’clock.

This particular section of the full photo, taken on April 5, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), shows many features very typical of the floor of Isidis Basin, which also immediately reveal a great deal about its possible history.

In this small snippet we can see what at first glance appear to be pedestal craters standing up like mesas, with ordinary craters scattered about on that lower surrounding terrain. Clearly, if these are pedestal craters they had to have been created first, and then over a very long time erosion processes ate away at that plain, leaving these pedestals (which had become resistant to erosion because the impact had packed their material together and made it harder) behind as mesas.

Then, after this period of erosion was complete enough additional time was required for at least one or two rounds of cratering to occur, leaving behind the many more younger craters on the plain floor, many of which are now partly buried by dust and sand.

The problem is that these mesas are almost certainly not pedestal craters, despite their appearance. » Read more

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Fading Martian slope streaks

Fading Martian slope streaks
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Cool image time! I’ve covered the topic of the mysterious slope streaks on Mars previously in great detail (see here and here). Essentially they are generally dark streaks (but sometimes light) that appear randomly on slopes and then fade over time. Unlike recurring slope lineae, another changing streak found on Martian slopes, the coming and going of slope streaks is not tied to the seasons. They can appear at any time in the year, and will take several Martian years to fade away.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on March 26, 2020. It shows numerous slope streaks down the eastern interior rim of a crater in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern cratered highlands in a region dubbed Arabia Terra.

Though I can find no previous high resolution image of this crater to measure any temporal changes, you can clearly see that this slope has experienced many streaks over time, with some darker than others. The different shades suggest that the lighter streaks are older and have faded, with the darker streaks more recent events.

At the moment there is no strong consensus on the causes of these streaks. As one science paper noted, “The processes that form slope streaks remain obscure. No proposed mechanism readily accounts for all of their observed characteristics and peculiarities.” We know they occur in equatorial regions and dusty locations, and that they are triggered by some disturbance at the topmost point of the streak, which then causes a chain reaction down the slope. Other than that, the facts are puzzling, and suggest that these streaks are a phenomenon wholly unique to Mars.

The crater itself, located at 24 degrees north latitude, has some other mysteries. The features on its floor, for instance, are very puzzling. Though suggestive of the buried glaciers found in many craters in the mid-latitudes, this crater is a bit too far south. Maybe its higher altitude allows for some ice to remain here? Then again, the features on that floor might have nothing to do with ice. Maybe we are looking at sand carved by wind? Or hardened mud that was once wet?

I am merely guessing, a dangerous thing to do when one’s knowledge is limited. Then again, it’s fun, so please join in with your own guesses.

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OSIRIS-REx spots sun-caused erosion on Bennu

Rock on Bennu showing exfoliation
Click for full figure.

An analysis of images taken by OSIRIS-REx of the asteroid Bennu has allowed scientists to identify places where the changing temperatures from day to night has caused the surfaces of rocks to flake away, a process geologists label exfoliation.

The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is from figure 1 in the paper. The yellow arrow points to a typical example of exfoliation, which is a process you can see on many rocks here on Earth.

Rocks expand when sunlight heats them during the day and contract as they cool down at night, causing stress that forms cracks that grow slowly over time. Scientists have thought for a while that thermal fracturing could be an important weathering process on airless objects like asteroids because many experience extreme temperature differences between day and night, compounding the stress. For example, daytime highs on Bennu can reach almost 127 degrees Celsius or about 260 degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows plummet to about minus 73 degrees Celsius or nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, many of the telltale features of thermal fracturing are small, and before OSIRIS-REx got close to Bennu, the high-resolution imagery required to confirm thermal fracturing on asteroids didn’t exist.

The mission team found features consistent with thermal fracturing using the spacecraft’s OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), which can see features on Bennu smaller than one centimeter (almost 0.4 inches). It found evidence of exfoliation, where thermal fracturing likely caused small, thin layers (1 – 10 centimeters) to flake off of boulder surfaces. The spacecraft also produced images of cracks running through boulders in a north-south direction, along the line of stress that would be produced by thermal fracturing on Bennu.

The typical erosion processes that can cause exfoliation (weather, gravity) are not possible on tiny Bennu, so the solution appears to rest with sunlight and sunlight alone.

This is not really a surprising result, but it is the first time it has been documented by data.

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A global map of rockfalls on the Moon

A global map of the rockfalls found on the Moon
Click for full resolution image.

A review of more than two million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images of the Moon has allowed scientists to compile the first global map of lunar rockfalls.

The map on the right comes from the paper. From the press release:

The result is a map of the lunar surface between 80 degrees northern and southern latitude that shows 136,610 rockfalls with diameters of more than two and a half meters. “For the first time, this map enables us to systematically analyze the occurrence and causes of rockfalls on another celestial body”, says Dr. Urs Mall from MPS.

Previously, scientists had assumed that lunar quakes in particular were responsible for the displacement of boulders. The new global map of rockfalls indicates that impacts from asteroids may play a much more important role. They are apparently – directly or indirectly – responsible for more than 80 percent of all observed rockfalls.

“Most of the rockfalls are found near crater walls,” says Prof. Dr. Simon Loew of ETH Zurich. Some of the boulders are displaced soon after the impact, others much later. The researchers hypothesize that impacts cause a network of cracks that extend in the underlying bedrock. Parts of the surface can thus become unstable even after very long periods of time.

Though the map suggests vaguely that these rockfalls are more scattered on the lunar farside and more concentrated in the mid-latitudes on the nearside, I suspect this is likely not so. If it is however it reveals something about the Moon that needs to be explained.

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Bennu’s forbidding gravelly surface

Gravelly Osprey landing site on Bennu
Click for a higher resolution version.

On May 26 the OSIRIS-REx science team completed their first rehearsal and close approach to their back-up sample-grab-and-go site on Bennu, dubbed Osprey, getting as close as 820 feet. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that sample site within the white box. According to the image caption, the “long, light-colored boulder to the left of the dark patch, named Strix Saxum, is 17 ft (5.2 m) in length.” Note also that they have rotated the image so that east is at the top in order to make it more easily viewed.

This particular spot in this crater is actually a revision from their first choice from early in 2019, which originally was to the right and below the dark patch in the center of the crater. After six months of study, they decided instead on the present target area above the dark patch, because it seemed safer with the most sampleable material.

So how safe is this new location? Let’s take a closer look.
» Read more

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An exposed dry waterfall on Mars

An exposed dry waterfall on Mars
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Close overview map

Wide overview map

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on April 30, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned, the science team titled the release as a “Cataract in Osuga Valles.”

To understand what we are looking at it is necessary to also see a wider view, as provided by the context map below and to the right. As you can see, this image straddles across the canyon called Osuga Valles, and heads downstream to the east. It also shows a point where the grade of that canyon suddenly drops. If water ever flowed here this place would have been the location of a truly spectacular waterfall.

More likely, these cataracts mark the location where sometime in the past a glacier had flowed down this valley, cutting a path until it broke out into the large and wide dead end area that appears to have no clear outlet. For some reason at this point the downhill grade of this canyon suddenly dropped, with the glacier following that sudden steep drop.

There is no glaciers here now, as this location is at 14 degrees south latitude, too close to the equator for any ice to remain close to the surface. Instead, dust dunes remain as the only feature flowing down through these cataracts.

The second overview map provides further context, showing the location of Osuga Valles relative to nearby Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon system in the solar system. Whatever process formed that gigantic canyon system certainly was a factor in forming Osuga Valles. The details however are not yet understood with any certainty. All we presently have are theories.

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InSight mole team reports some digging success

InSight scoop pushing against mole as it digs
Click to watch movie.

A new strategy devised in February to use the scoop on the Mars InSight lander to push down on the mole digging tool so that it could gain traction and dig downward has apparently had some success.

We started about seven centimetres above the surface on Sol 458 (11 March) and we are now at the surface with the scoop on Sol 536 (30 May 30), after six cycles of hammering over 11 weeks.

If you click on the image on the right you can see a movie assembled from images taken since February as they pushed down. The mole has clearly descended into the Martian soil about seven centimeters, or about three inches. The issue now, as shown in the movie, is that the mole is now deep enough that the scoop is pressed against the ground. It can’t really push down anymore on the mole, at least in this configuration.

They have the option of using the scoop’s tip to push farther into the ground, but that involves some risk. First they plan to let the mole continue to dig, without the scoop’s help, in the hope that it is now finally deep enough into the ground that the ground is finally able to provide the friction required to hold the mole in place. If this doesn’t work, they will then try using the scoop to fill the hole up to provide more friction.

If that doesn’t work, they will then try using the scoop tip to provide the added pressure.

All in all, it does appear there is now hope that the mole will eventually get the heat sensor for measuring the internal temperatue on Mars deep enough to do its primary mission. Stay tuned!

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The strange squashed ridges at the basement of Mars

Squashed ridges at the basement of Mars
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Overview map

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 9, 2020, and shows the very weird and very packed ridges and layers that are found routinely at the deepest part of Hellas Basin, what I have dubbed the basement of Mars.

Be sure to click on the image to see the full photograph. There’s lots more strangeness to see there. And be sure to read my post in the second link, which highlights a similarly strange set of packed ridges, and where I note:

This is the basement of Mars, what could be called its own Death Valley. The difference however is that unlike Death Valley, conditions here could be more amendable to life, as the lower elevation means the atmosphere is thicker.

The context map to the right shows Hellas, with the location of today’s image indicated by the white box, close to basin’s lowest point, more than five miles below the basin’s rim. Overall the Hellas Basin is about the size of the western United States, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. It is believed that the entire basin was created by a single gigantic impact that occurred about four billion years ago when the solar system’s inner planets were undergoing what has been labeled the Late Heavy Bombardment.

The specific process that formed these ridges, dubbed honeycomb terrain by scientists, remains unknown however. There are of course theories, none of which are very convincing. Here’s mine, as outlined in the previous post:
» Read more

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Thar’s ice in them Martian hills!

Icy mountains in Erebus Montes?
Click for full image.

Overview map of Starship landing site images

Cool image time! Today we return to the Erebus Mountains, located just to the west of SpaceX’s prime candidate landing site for Starship on Mars. The photo to the right, taken on April 4, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows one particular area between the peaks in those mountains, and also happens to be very close to what I have labeled image #1 in SpaceX’s Starship landing site photos.

The second image below and to the right shows an overview map of this region, with the SpaceX photos indicated by the numbered white boxes and the location of this image indicated by the red box, right next to image #1. The black boxes were images that SpaceX had obtained from MRO earlier, when it was first planning to send a Dragon capsule to Mars using a Falcon Heavy, a project the company has put aside in its focus on building Starship.

To my eye, everything in the first image above reeks of an icy, glacial terrain. I certainly am guessing, but it is an educated guess based on looking at numerous similar images in this region (see here and here, ) as well as in the nearby Phlegra mountains to the west. I also base my guess on what I have learned interviewing planetary scientists who are studying these images. The reasonableness of this guess is further strengthened in that the location is at 39 degrees north latitude, dead center in the mid-latitude bands where scientists have found evidence of numerous buried glaciers.

If Starship lands just to the east of the Erebus Mountains, the first colonists will likely not only have water available at their feet close to the surface in the flat lowland plains, if they find that resource insufficient they will need only climb uphill a bit into these hills to dig out as much ice as they could ever need.

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Rover update: The state of Curiosity’s wheels

[For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.]

In my last rover update (April 16, 2020), I posted some new images taken of Curiosity’s wheels, showing the damage that they have experienced during the rover’s journey so far in Gale Crater.

At the time, I was unable to match any of the released images, taken on Sol 2732 (April 13, 2020), with the previous wheel image I have used to quickly gauge any new damage (see my July 9, 2019 report).

As it turns out, one of those images did match the earlier image. I simply failed to realize it. Today’s daily download of raw images from Curiosity included additional photos of the rover’s wheels, apparently also taken on Sol 2732 but not available until now. One of those images matches the earlier wheel image, and this time I spotted the match. A comparison is posted below, with my analysis.
» Read more

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A Martian crater with a straight edge

A mis-shapened crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was released today by the science team of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a small Martian crater whose northern rim for some reason is flattened into a straight line. Such a crater is rare, since almost all craters rims are round, even in the case of a low angle impact. The cause is unknown, though there are theories. From the caption, written by Ingrid Daubar of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona:

One possibility is that there was a zone of joints or faults in the crust that existed before the impact. When the impact happened, the crater formed along the straight line of these faults. Something similar happened to Meteor Crater in Arizona. Our image doesn’t show any faults, but they could be beneath the surface.

Perhaps some sort of uneven collapse changed the shape of the crater. There are piles of material on the crater’s floor, especially in the northwest and northeast corners. If those piles fell down from the rim, why did it happen there and not in other places? This crater is near the size where larger craters start to show wall slumping and terraces, so this type of collapse could be occurring unevenly.

The crater is located in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, at about 32 degrees latitude. At that latitude, it is also possible that some past glacial activity could have misshapen this crater, though I have no idea how. The crater itself does not appear to have any glacial material in it.

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OSIRIS-REx completes close fly-over of backup sample grab site

The OSIRIS-REx science team has completed its closest fly-over of its backup sample grab location on the asteroid Bennu, getting to within about 820 feet.

The goal was to get better imagery and science data of the site, both for research and also should the planned October 20th sample-grab-and-go touchdown at the primary site, Nightingale, should fail.

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Weird central peak in Martian crater

Textured central peak in Martian crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 18, 2020. It shows a very strange central peak in a crater on Mars. Not only does this peak stick out like a sore thumb in a relatively flat crater floor, its surface is strangely textured, patterned with what look like scallops.

The overview map below shows the area covered in the crater by the full image.

My guess is that the peak is the final impact melt from the original impact. Think of a pebble thrown into a pond. You get ripples (the crater rim) as well as an upward drop of water (the central peak). Unlike pond water, the material in a crater freezes quickly, leaving both the ripple and the upward drop frozen in place.

Close overview of crater

This peak however also reminds me of volcanic cones found in the American southwest, the remnant cone of a much larger volcano that has long ago eroded away.

The textures might be evidence of that erosion process, as they resemble scallops that wind and water erosion can cause on rock faces.

We also could be seeing dunes on the slopes themselves, though I think this is unlikely. This crater is on the edge of the vast Medusae Fossae Formation, the largest volcanic ash deposit field on Mars, as shown by the white cross on the overview map below. Thus, being on the edge of this ash field there is a lot of available dust and sand that can pile up on these slopes.

Wide Overview map

Still, the sunlight side of the ridge suggests the scallops are in bedrock, not sand dunes. And to assign their origin to either wind or water or ice erosion I think is a stretch.

So while the peak is probably the frozen melt remains of the original impact, the scallops are a geological mystery that needs unraveling.

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Amazing layers

Bedrock layering in Holden Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a cool captioned image entitled “Exquisite Layering”, showing a place on the floor of Holden Crater where the dust and sand that normally covers most of the Martian surface has been wiped away, cleared off because these layers are on higher sloping terrain.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, focuses in on that exposed layering, believed to be sedimentary and must have therefore happened in the eons following the impact that caused the crater.

Overview map

The overview map to the right shows with the red box the location of this layering inside Holden Crater. The map also illustrates why this crater was considered a candidate landing site for Curiosity. Like Gale Crater, it has evidence — the large meandering canyon system flowing into the crater — that suggests it had once been filled with a water lake. These sedimentary layers support that hypothesis, suggesting that this lake was intermittent. Each time it refilled and then dried up, it laid down a new deposit of those sedimentary layers.

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More pits found on Mars

Pit near Hephaestus Fossae
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Overview map

Since 2018 I have made it a point to document every new pit image taken on Mars by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The list of can be found at the bottom of this post.

In the most recent release from MRO, a number of new pits were photographed. All continue to suggest that Mars has a lot of underground voids, some caused by lava flow, some by tectonic activity, some by water ice erosion, and some almost certainly caused by processes we don’t yet know. The images also suggest that we have only identified a small fraction of those underground voids.

The first image to the right, cropped to post here, shows the one new pit in the northern lowlands of Utopia Planitia, near a series of meandering channels and canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae and Hebrus Valles.

This appears to be the fifth such pit found in this region. Previously I had documented the first four. The overview map to the right adds this fifth pit. Note how the pit is much closer to the head of Hephaestus. In the full image you can see fissures both to the north and south, as well as many nearby aligned depressions, suggesting the existence of more underground passages, some possibly linked to voids under this very pit.

The pit itself seems filled, with no apparent side passages, though to the southwest there might be something leading off in the shadows.

The overall terrain in this region, including these pits, the fissures, and the many aligned depressions, strongly suggests a lot of underground voids. As I noted in 2019:
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A Jupiter Trojan asteroid spouts a tail

The ATLAS telescope has discovered the first Jupiter Trojan asteroid to spout a tail like a comet.

Early in June 2019, ATLAS reported what seemed to be a faint asteroid near the orbit of Jupiter. The Minor Planet Center designated the new discovery as 2019 LD2. Inspection of ATLAS images taken on June 10 by collaborators Alan Fitzsimmons and David Young at Queen’s University Belfast revealed its probable cometary nature. Follow-up observations by the University of Hawaiʻi’s J.D. Armstrong and his student Sidney Moss on June 11 and 13 using the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) global telescope network confirmed the cometary nature of this body.

Later, in July 2019, new ATLAS images caught 2019 LD2 again – now truly looking like a comet, with a faint tail made of dust or gas. The asteroid passed behind the Sun and was not observable from the Earth in late 2019 and early 2020, but upon its reappearance in the night sky in April of 2020, routine ATLAS observations confirmed that it still looks like a comet. These observations showed that 2019 LD2 has probably been continuously active for almost a year.

While ATLAS has discovered more than 40 comets, what makes this object extraordinary is its orbit. The early indication that it was an asteroid near Jupiter’s orbit have now been confirmed through precise measurements from many different observatories. In fact, 2019 LD2 is a special kind of asteroid called a Jupiter Trojan – and no object of this type has ever before been seen to spew out dust and gas like a comet.

There are a number of mysteries here. First, why should it have suddenly become active, since its orbit is relatively circular (similar to Jupiter’s)? Second, it had been assumed that the Jupiter Trojans had been in their orbits for a long time and had long ago vented any ice on their surfaces. This discovery proves that assumption false. It suggests that either this asteroid is a comet that was recently captured, or that things can happen on these asteroids to bring some buried volatiles up to the surface, where they can then vent.

Above all, this asteroid shows that it is dangerous to assume all Jupiter Trojan asteroids are the same. I guarantee when we finally get a close look at a bunch, when the Lucy mission arrives beginning in 2027, the variety will be quite spectacular.

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A shadowed ice patch on Mars

A shadowed ice patch on Mars
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Cool image time! The evidence coming back from Mars in the past two decades has increasingly suggested that there is a lot of water in that planet’s mid- and high latitudes. In the mid-latitudes the evidence suggests that ice is locked in a lot of buried and inactive glaciers that were laid down during periods when the planet’s rotational tilt, its obliquity, was greater so that the annual seasons were more extreme. During those times the mid-latitudes were colder than the poles, and water was being transferred from the poles to those mid-latitudes.

The image to the right appears to be more such evidence. Taken on March 21, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and brightened by me to bring out the important details, it shows what looks to be a distinct patch of ice on the south-facing slope of the rim of a large crater. Since this crater is in the southern mid-latitudes (34 degrees south), that south-facing slope generally gets much less sunlight, even in the summer, so any remaining buried glacial ice on that slope will linger for a longer period.

Think of the lingering ice and snow patches on shadowed locations on Earth. Because the Sun does not directly shine on them, they will be the last patches to melt away.

What I think is likely important about this patch are the exposed layers along its edge. These are the spots that are melting first, as they are where the ice is exposed, unprotected by a layer of dust and debris. It is also here that we have a window into that geological history. Even at this resolution you can see that the ice was laid down in layers, meaning that it contains evidence of those repeated climate cycles produced by Mars’ shifts in obliquity.

Those layers even seem to show the same sharp and sudden change from brighter and dirtier layers, as seen in the layers of the north pole ice cap, that occurred about 4.5 million years ago.

How tantalizing. The entire climate history of Mars is sitting there for us to decipher. We need only drill a few core samples and voila! the pieces of that history will start to fall into place.

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The edge of an eroded buried Martian glacier

The edge of an eroded buried Maritian glacier
Click for full resolution image.

Overview

Cool image time! The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 6, 2020.

The image shows the dying edge of a debris flow coming down from a mesa, the edge of which can be seen as the dark slopes in the upper left. The white arrows point up slope. It is located in the chaos terrain of a mid-latitude region called Deuteronilus Mensae, in the transition zone between the southern highlands and northern lowlands, where many such glacial-like features are found. I featured a similar nearby glacial edge only two months ago, where the image showed the glacier’s break up and collapse at its edge.

Here, the debris flow isn’t breaking up so much as crumbling away, its edge a line of meandering depressions, with the uphill slope covered with many knobs and tiny depressions, reminiscent to me of the many features I see in caves, where the downward flow of water shapes and erodes everything to form cups and holes and knobs, all the same size. If you click on the full resolution image and zoom into that debris slope and then compare it with the linked cave formation photo, you will see the resemblance.

We are almost certainly looking at a buried inactive glacial flow coming off that mesa, though it appears to be eroding at its foot. The overview image to the right shows the context, with the red dots indicating this image as well as similar features in adjacent mensae regions (featured in the linked images above). While the chaotic and rough terrain found along this transition zone does not make them good first settlement sites, the ample evidence of vast reservoirs of buried ice, combined with a variety of topography, will likely someday make this good real estate for those living on Mars.

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The blobby wettish flows of Mars

flow-like feature in Utopia Planitia
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Cool image time! Rather than talk about shut downs, lying politicians, and our tragically fear-filled society, let’s go exploring on Mars. The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 8, 2020. Dubbed a “Flow-Like Feature within the Adamas Labyrinthus”, it shows what appears to be a very distorted and eroded pedestal crater surrounded by strange triangular-shaped flow features.

It also shows, as does much other research, that the northern mid-latitudes of Mars have a lot of frozen water, much of it buried very close to the surface.

Assuming this is a pedestal crater (which it might not be), this feature has to be very old. Pedestal craters require age, as to stand out above the surrounding terrain a lot of time is needed to erode that terrain away. This age is confirmed by the bunch of newer craters on top.

At the same time, the partially filled small crater near its bottom, as well as the soft eroded depressions on top, suggest that much of this surface has been reshaped by more recent flows, changing its shape over time.

The surrounding triangular flows probably occurred at the original impact, and suggest that there is ice near the surface, making the material here act almost like wet mud when heated. Since this location is right in the middle of the mid-latitude bands where scientists have found lots of evidence of buried glaciers and ice near the surface, this supposition seems reasonable.

The overall location provides some further context.
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A relaxed crater on Mars

A relaxed crater on Mars
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows what the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) call a “Relaxed Crater.” This particular image was taken in July 2014. A more recent photo was taken in March 2020 to create a stereo pair, but because this older image shows more of the crater I decided to highlight it.

The crater is considered relaxed because it is very shallow and appears as if, after impact, some process caused the interior to in-fill with material even as the rim became less pronounced and degraded (as explained in this paper [pdf]). The process could have involved either molten magma or melted ice. As this crater is located in the northern highlands to the southwest of Erebus Mountains, in a region that research has consistently suggested has a great deal of ice just below the surface, the latter seems likely. This assumption is further reinforced in that the crater is also located in the mid-latitudes where scientists have found a lot of craters they think are filled with buried glaciers. This certainly seems the case here.
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