Tag Archives: geology

Ice! Ice! Everywhere on Mars ice!

Ice scarp in Milankovic Crater
Click for full image.

In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of exposed ice in a number scarp cliff faces found in the high-mid-latitudes of Mars.

These scarps, which have so far been found in one southern 50-55 degree latitude strip and in one crater, Milankovic, at the same latitude in the north, are important because they are one of the first places on Mars in its lower latitudes where we have found ice actually exposed and visible, not buried like the many buried glaciers very near the surface found in the 30 to 60 degree northern and southern latitude bands.

Since that press announcement, scientists have been monitoring these sites for changes, as well as expanding their survey to see if they can locate more of these scarps.

Overview map

My previous posts on this subject were mostly focused on that southern strip near Hellas Basin, as shown on the map on the right. In reviewing the most recent image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I noticed that the only new images of ice scarps were taken in the northern location, in Milankovic Crater, as indicated by the white dot north of Olympus Mons. The first image above shows the north-facing scarp of one of these images, cropped to focus in on the color section where, if you look close, you will see a strip of blue across the base of the scarp. That’s the ice layer, exposed as the scarp sublimates away over time from the north to the south.

over view of all MRO images taken so far in Milankovic Crater

This scarp, labeled #2 on the overview map of Milankovic Crater on the right, is located inside the crater’s eastern rim. The second image, posted below and labeled #1 on the overview map, shows a wider area of several ice scarps located on the inside of the crater’s southwestern rim.

The red boxes in the overview map indicate all the images taken by MRO inside this crater. If you go to the camera’s archive and focus in on Milankovic Crater at 54.5 degrees north latitude and 213.3 degrees longitude, you can then click on each red box to see the high resolution image. In practically every image along the crater’s inside rim can be found numerous scarps.
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Swirls and layers in Martian depression

Close-up on swirls and layers

Context of depressions in Columbus Crater
Click for full resolution image.

Cool image time! The southern highlands of Mars is littered with numerous craters, making it look from a distance not unlike the Moon. A closer inspection of each crater and feature, however has consistently revealed a much more complex history than seen on the Moon, with the origins of many features often difficult to explain.

The two images on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows one such feature in the floor of one southern highlands crater, dubbed Columbus Crater. The top image is a close-up of the area shown by the box in the bottom image.

The uncaptioned full photograph was taken on May 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was simply titled “Depression in Columbus Crater.” Since the photo included two large depressions, as shown in the wider view in the bottom image, I’m not sure which depression this title refers. In both cases the features do not appear to be impact craters. The top depression is far too irregular, while both do not have the upraised rims that are found on most impact craters.

I have zoomed into the top depression because of its many swirls and layers. On Earth such terrain is usually caused by either water or wind erosion, slowly carving a smooth path across multiple geological layers. Here, there is no obvious evidence of any flows in any direction. Something ate out the material in this depression, exposing the many layers, but what is not clear.

The lower depression reminds me of sinkholes on Earth, where the ground is subsiding into a void below ground The same process could have also formed the top depression.

The surrounding terrain is equally baffling, resembling the eroded surface of an ice block that has been sprayed with warm water. In fact, the entire floor of Columbus Crater appears to have intrigued planetary scientists, as they have requested a lot of images of it from MRO. So far they do not have enough of these images to produce a full map. Since the terrain appears to change drastically over short distances, it is therefore hard to fit the geology of each image together. The overall context is missing.

When I first saw this image I tried to reach the scientist who requested it in the hope he might provide me a more nuanced explanation of what we see here, but despite repeated requests he never responded. Therefore let me propose one theory, based on my limited knowledge of Martian geology.
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The drying out of Mars

Edge of wash
The Murray formation as seen in 2017

A new paper based on data gathered by the rover Curiosity in 2017 when it was lower on the slopes of Mount Sharp, as well as data obtained more recently at higher elevations, has confirmed that the past Martian environment of Gale Crater was wetter, and that deeper lakes formed lower down, as one would expect.

In 2017 Curiosity was traveling through a geological layer dubbed the Murray formation. It has since climbed upward through the hematite formation forming a ridge the scientists dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge to reach the clay formation, where the rover presently sits. Above it lies the sulfate-bearing unit, where the terrain begins to be get steeper with many very dramatic geological formations.

Looking across the entirety of Curiosity’s journey, which began in 2012, the science team sees a cycle of wet to dry across long timescales on Mars. “As we climb Mount Sharp, we see an overall trend from a wet landscape to a drier one,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the Mars Science Laboratory mission that Curiosity is a part of. “But that trend didn’t necessarily occur in a linear fashion. More likely, it was messy, including drier periods, like what we’re seeing at Sutton Island, followed by wetter periods, like what we’re seeing in the ‘clay-bearing unit’ that Curiosity is exploring today.”

Up until now, the rover has encountered lots of flat sediment layers that had been gently deposited at the bottom of a lake [the Murray Formation]. Team member Chris Fedo, who specializes in the study of sedimentary layers at the University of Tennessee, noted that Curiosity is currently running across large rock structures [Vera Rubin Ridge and the clay formation] that could have formed only in a higher-energy environment such as a windswept area or flowing streams.

Wind or flowing water piles sediment into layers that gradually incline. When they harden into rock, they become large structures similar to “Teal Ridge,” which Curiosity investigated this past summer [in the clay formation]. “Finding inclined layers represents a major change, where the landscape isn’t completely underwater anymore,” said Fedo. “We may have left the era of deep lakes behind.”

Curiosity has already spied more inclined layers in the distant sulfate-bearing unit. The science team plans to drive there in the next couple years and investigate its many rock structures. If they formed in drier conditions that persisted for a long period, that might mean that the clay-bearing unit represents an in-between stage – a gateway to a different era in Gale Crater’s watery history.

None of these results are really surprising. You would expect lakes in the flatter lower elevations and high-energy streams and flows in the steeper higher elevations. Confirming this geology however is a big deal, especially because they are beginning to map out in detail the nature of these geological processes on Mars, an alien world with a different make-up and gravity from Earth.

Below the fold is the Curiosity science teams overall map, released in May 2019, showing the rover’s future route up to that sulfate unit, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
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Weird glacial features in Martian crater

weird glacial feature in crater on Mars
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Cool image time! In reviewing today’s October release of new images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the strange geology shown in the image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here.

The uncaptioned image calls these “glacial features within crater.” The crater is located at 35 degrees north latitude in Arabia Terra, one of the more extensive regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It is also located within the northern band from 30 to 60 degrees latitude where most of the buried Martian glaciers are found.

The most abundant type of buried glaciers are called concentric crater fill (CCF) because they are found inside craters, and often show decay in a concentric manner. This weird feature likely falls into that category, though I would hardly call these glacier features concentric.

I’m not even sure if this is an impact crater. If it is, its rim has been heavily obscured, making it look instead like an irregular depression with one outlet to the south. In fact, I suspect it is possibly one of the lakes that scientists believe pepper this part of Arabia Terra and might have contained liquid water two to three billion years ago. That water would have later frozen, and possibly become covered by dust and debris to protect it.

According to present theories, Mars is presently in a period where its mid-latitude glaciers are shrinking, the water sublimating away and being transported back to its poles. The weird formations here suggest this process. Imagine what happens when you spray warm water on a big block of ice. It dissolves, but randomly to form weird shapes.

In this case the glacier is shrinking randomly where the ice has gotten exposed. In the thin Martian atmosphere, it transitions directly from a solid to a gas, sublimating into the atmosphere to leave these inexplicable shapes.

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The slowly changing dunes of Mars

Map of Mars

In order to better understand the climate and geology of Mars, scientists need to study how the thin Martian atmosphere causes changes to the planet’s numerous sand dunes. To do this, they have been using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to periodically snap photos of the same places repeatedly over time, to track any changes that might occur.

Recently the monthly download dump of images from MRO included one such location in the northwest quadrant of Hellas Basin, what I call the basement of Mars because it the planet’s lowest point. The uncaptioned image was taken on May 20, 2019 and was titled “Hellas Region Sand Dune Changes.” A review of past images shows that MRO has taken pictures of this location several times in the past, in 2011 and in 2017. All these images were taken during the Martian autumn season, and were taken to see if over time there were any significant changes to the dunes due to winds.

My superficial comparison of the 2011 and 2017 images does not show much obvious change. There could be small changes that my quick review did not spot, and there is also the strong possibility that the entire dune field could have shifted as a unit over those three Martian years, a change that would require a more detailed analysis beyond my technical capabilities. Click on both links, put the photographs in separate tabs, and switch quickly between them to see if you can spot any differences.

Comparing the 2011 and 2019 images however shows some significant changes, most of which I think are due to the 2018 global dust storm. Below is that comparison.
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Martian impact into lava crust?

Impact crater north of Pavonis Mons
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on April 23, 2019. It shows a quite intriguing impact crater on the northern lava slopes of Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in the chain of three gigantic volcanoes to the west of Valles Marineris.

What makes this image cool is what the impact did when it hit. Note the circular depression just outside the crater’s rim. In the southeast quadrant that ring also includes a number of additional parallel and concentric depressions. Beyond the depression ground appears mottled, almost like splashed mud.

What could have caused this circular depression? Our first clue comes from the crater’s location, as shown in the overview map below and to the right.
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Cave pits in the Martian northern lowlands

New pits in Hephaestus Planitia

I could call this my monthly Martian Pit update. Since November 2018 I have each month found from two to five new and interesting cave pits in the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). My previous posts:

All except the last August 12 post were for pits on the flanks of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the line of three giant volcanoes to the southeast of Olympus Mons, and were thus almost certainly resulting from lava flows.

The August 12 post instead showed pits found in Utopia Planitia, one of the large plains that comprise the Martian northern lowlands where scientists think an intermittent ocean might have once existed. All of these pits are found in a region of meandering canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae.

In the most recent MRO release scientists once again focused on the pits in or near Hephaetus, imaging four pits, two of which have been imaged previously, as shown in my August post and labeled #2 and #4 in this article, and two (here and here) that appear new. The image on the right, cropped to post here, shows the two new pits, dubbed #1 and #3. In the full image of #1, it is clear that this pit lines up nicely with some other less prominent depressions, suggesting an underground cave. Pit #3 however is more puzzling. In the full image, this pit actually runs perpendicular to a long depression to the west. There are also no other related features around it.

What makes all four of these pits intriguing is their relationship to Hephaestus Fossae and a neighboring rill-like canyon dubbed Hebrus Valles, as shown in the overview map below.
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Avalanche season at the Martian north pole

Avalanche on-going at the edge of Mars' north pole icecap
Click for full resolution image.

As the Martian spring started to unfold in April 2019, the focus of many Martian planetary scientists immediately shifted to the northern polar icecap, where they fully expected, based on previous experience, some spectacular events to occur.

I have already reported on this year’s initial observations of the sublimation of the carbon dioxide frost layer. That frost layer, generally less than six feet thick, falls as dry ice snow with the coming of winter, then sublimates away each spring. Since the arrival of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006 and its discovery of this process by its high resolution camera, these scientists have been monitoring the disappearance of that frost layer from Martian year to Martian year.

That sublimation process also brings with it other spectacular changes, including the coming of frequent avalanches along the high cliff scarps, ranging in heights from 1,500 to 3,000 feet, that comprise the edge of that north pole icecap. The image above, reduced to post here, shows one of the many avalanches found this spring and photographed as they were actually happening. It looks down at the cliff that runs from the left to the lower right of the image, with its top being the flat plateau in the lower left. From the caption, written by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

Every spring the sun shines on the side of the stack of layers at the North Pole of Mars known as the north polar layered deposits. The warmth destabilizes the ice and blocks break loose.

When they reach the bottom of the more than 500 meter tall cliff face [about 1,600 feet], the blocks kick up a cloud of dust. (In the cutout, the top layer of the north polar cap is to the lower left.) The layers beneath are different colors and textures depending on the amount of dust mixed with ice.

The linear many-layered look of that cliff face is due to the many layers believed to exist within the permanent water icecap of Mars. To give some perspective, this cliff is several hundred taller than the World Trade Center after completion. Those falling blocks are dropping farther than the bodies that horribly fell from the Trade Center the day it was hit by airplanes flown by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.

The map below shows most of the eastern half of that icecap, with the white boxes showing the various places MRO has spotted such avalanches.
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Terraced and banded hills on Mars

Banded or terraced hills in eastern Hellas
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Cool image time! In my review of the most recent download of images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) the high resolution camera, I found a very startling (and cool) image of some dramatic terraced Martian hills, taken on July 30, 2019. I wanted to post it here, but decided to first do some more digging, and found that an earlier image, taken in 2017, showed more of this particular hill. It is this earlier image posted to the right, cropped and reduced.

Don’t ask me to explain the geology that caused this hill to look as it does. I can provide some basic knowledge, but the details and better theories will have to come from the scientists who are studying this feature (who unfortunately did not respond to my request for further information).

What I can do is lay out what is known about this location, as indicated by the red box in the overview map below and to the right, and let my readers come up with their own theories. The odds of anyone being right might not be great, but it will be fun for everyone to speculate.
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Mars’ mysterious slope streaks become even more mysterious

Bright slope streaks in Arabia Terra
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Mars is an alien planet. This fact needs to be restated over and over, because we humans have an uncontrolled and unconscious tendency to view the things we find on Mars and assume they are caused by and resemble phenomenon we see all the time here on Earth.

Not. Mars has a very different climate, a significantly weaker gravitational field (about one third of Earth’s), and a geological and environmental make-up very alien from Earth’s. While many phenomenon there might have parallels on Earth, it is very dangerous to assume they are the same, because more often than not, they are exceedingly dissimilar and mysterious.

The image on the right is another example of this, reduced and cropped to post here. It is of some slope streaks in the Arabia Terra region on Mars, the largest most extensive region in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern highlands. I found it in my review of the August 30th release of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

As I already noted in my previous article about the mysterious slope streaks of Mars:

The bottom line, as noted in one paper, “The processes that form slope streaks remain obscure. No proposed mechanism readily accounts for all of their observed characteristics and peculiarities.”

Mars is strange. Mars is alien. Mars epitomizes the universe in all its glory.

The image above only reinforces this conclusion.
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Cliff collapse on Mars

Cliff collapse on Mars
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Cool image time! The photograph to the left, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was found in the August image release of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

This was an uncaptioned image, with a title “Cataract and Grooves in Kasei Valles.” Kasei Valles is the giant canyon north of Marineris Valles. Though it is not as well known or maybe as dramatic, it is about as long and vast as its more famous southern canyon. It also has some very intriguing features, including what I consider to so far be the pit on Mars with the highest priority for exploration.

The image on the right shows the result when a giant section of this cliff face broke off and collapsed into the canyon. It also shows that the collapse occurred a long time ago. Not only are there newer craters on the collapse debris, the breakdown at the cliff base looks well eroded, as if many eons have passed since it piled up there.

When this section broke off however it was a very big event. The width of the collapse is about a mile across, with its depth about 600 feet. The height of the cliff is approximately 3000 feet, give or take a few hundred feet. Thus the chunk that broke off was about 600 feet wide, 5,000 feet long, and about 3,000 feet high. That’s one very big rock.

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Melting rocks on Mars

Melt pools near Mohave Crater
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Cool image time! The image to the right, reduced, cropped, and annotated by me to post here, was part of the July image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was titled “Melt Pools around Mojave Crater”.

You can see that the flow began to the south, flowed northward (in the middle of the image), and then pooled in the two places as indicated. In the full photograph you can also see that the flow continued to the north, forming more pools.

The title to me suggests that this flow and the melt pools were lava, not ice. The low latitude, 7 degrees north, also suggests this is not ice. Though I was unable to reach the person who requested these images, it appears his research is aimed understanding the melt events that occur in the vicinity of craters upon impact. From his website:
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An eroding Martian glacier?

An eroded glacier on Mars?

Close-up of an eroded glacier on Mars?
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Cool image time! In my never-ending review of new images downloaded each month from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came upon an image dubbed merely “Terrain Sample” in the August release. To the right, cropped and rotated to post here, is the weird terrain from that image, with the section in the white box shown below at full resolution.

To keep MRO functioning properly, they need to take images on a regular basis, even if they have no planned features coming into view. As noted by Singleton Thibodeaux-Yost, the HiRISE Targeting Specialist at the University of Arizona who requested this image,

It was not taken in response to a suggestion from the public or our team database. This image was a ride-along with another instrument on MRO. [The scientists for that other instrument] targeted this region for a particular reason and we just turned on our camera as well to gather more data while they collected their data. I title these types of images “terrain sample” as we don’t always know what the results will be.

In other words, the scientists running the high resolution camera have no inkling what they will see until see it.

This image shows the inside rim of a crater, with the crater rim to the south just beyond the image’s bottom edge. This somewhat large crater is located in the middle of Arabia Terra, one of the largest regions of the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands (where some scientists believe an intermittent ocean might have once existed). This transition zone has many features that suggest a tidal basin on the edge of that ocean.

A few months ago I would have been entirely baffled by what we see here. I might have speculated that these strange features were another variation of that shoreline region. Maybe these features are the erosion one sees on a dried lakebed after the water has drained away.

I might have also speculated that these shapes looked like the kind of frozen ice blocks one sees in the icecap of the Arctic here on Earth.

Both speculations then would have been complete guesses.

I now know, based on things I have recently learned in writing about several other images from MRO, that the second guess is likely right (though of course my opinion as a very amateur planetary geologist should not be taken very seriously). My reasons?
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Monitoring Martian pits not near Arsia Mons

Second look at Hephaestus Fossae pit
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In reviewing the August image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came upon two different new pit images, the more interesting of which is highlighted on the right, cropped to post here..

Finding new pit images from MRO isn’t surprising, since the spacecraft has been photographing pits almost monthly since November (see: November 12, 2018, January 30, 2019, February 22, 2019, April 2, 2019, May 7, 2019, and July 1, 2019).

What makes these two new pit images more intriguing are their location, and the fact that both pits were previously photographed by MRO and posted on Behind the Black on June 5, 2018 and July 24, 2018. Both are located in Hephaestus Fossae, a region of fissures on the edge of the great Martian northern lowlands to the west of the great volcano Elysium Mons.

Almost all the pits from past MRO images have been found on the slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the three giant volcanoes southeast of Olympus Mons. In fact, last month I even asked the question, “Why so many pits there, and so few pits elsewhere?” The explanation from Chris Okubo of the U.S. Geological Survey, who is requesting these images, was that maybe it was due to geology, or maybe it was because we simply do not yet have enough information and might not have identified the many caves/pits elsewhere.

It appears that this same question had already been on the minds of Okubo and his partner, Glen Cushing, also of the USGS. As Okubo wrote me when I asked him about these new images:
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Watching the yearly vanishing of Mars’ north pole dry icecap

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
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Buzzel dunes, April 4, 2019
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Buzzell dunes, June 4, 2019
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For the northern hemisphere of Mars it is presently spring. The season began sometime in April 2019 and will last until about October, twice as long as on Earth because of the Martian year is twice as long.

During the fall and winter the permanent water-icecap, which forms the bulk of the Martian icecap, gets covered by a mantle of dry ice, settling there as a layer of carbon dioxide snow about six feet thick. With the arrival of spring that dry icecap slowly begins sublimate away entirely.

Using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) planetary scientists are monitoring this process, taking pictures periodically.

On June 6, 2019 I had written a detailed story describing the Martian North Pole and outlining the process by which this sublimation of the dry icecap mantle takes place.

When winter ends and the sun reappears at this Arctic location, a small percentage of that sunlight, about 10%, goes through the dry ice and warms the sand that the dry ice mantles. This in turn warms the bottom of the dry ice layer, causing this to sublimate into a gas that is now trapped.

When the pressure builds sufficiently, that gas breaks free at the weakest spots in the dry ice layer, which are either at the dune crest or at its base, or sometimes on its face where cracks form. When it does so the CO2 gas carries with it material from below, which appears dark relative to the bright dry ice on the surface. As the summer season progresses and more dry ice sublimates away, the dark smudges disappear as they slowly blend in with the now-exposed original sand surface.

The first two pictures to the right were posted in that June 6, 2019 story, showing the initial evidence of sublimation on a set of dunes that the scientists have dubbed Buzzell. Below these, I have now added the newest image of the Buzzell dunes, taken on June 4, 2019 and just released in the August MRO image dump.

When this third image was taken, spring was only about two months old. Yet, this sublimation process is clearly accelerating. You can see many more dark patches at the crests and bases of many dunes, especially in the upper left of the image. According to Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who is requesting these monitoring images, by sometime in October “you’ll see how the entire spring progresses from dunes completely covered with dry ice to the summer when they are just bare sand. Then you could comment on the whole spring series.”

I fully intend to do this. No harm however in providing an interim report or two. Stay tuned to Behind the Black for future on-going and up-to-date reports on the shrinking north pole dry icecap of Mars!

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Crater on the Basement of Mars

Crater in the bottom of Hellas Basin
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Cool image time! In the July release of images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was the image to the right, cropped to post here, showing what I suspect is a relatively young crater located in the lowest part of Hellas Basin, what I call the bottom of Mars.

Though this crater is not located at the lowest point in Hellas, it is not far off from there. What makes it important to geologists are two facts. First, there are not a lot of craters in Hellas, which helps indicate it is a relatively young feature. Second, and more important, the impact has made accessible material from below the surface, indicated by the different colors in this image. From this information they can better constrain their theories about the Basin’s formation and where it fits in Mars’s overall geological history.

Make sure you take a look at the full photograph by clicking of the image, and compare it with the earlier Hellas Basin images I posted here. The surface of Hellas appears to have a lot of flow features, as if it was laid down by volcanic activity, or by the motion of water that covered it. In either case that would explain the overall lack of craters.

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A bullseye on Mars

Layered crater at equator
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Cool image time! In researching my piece last week on the glaciers of Mars I had wanted to include a picture of a typical concentric glacier-filled crater, the most widespread glacial feature on the Martian surface, found in a band at latitudes between 30 and 60 degrees. (You can see the example I found at the link above, near the end of the article.)

To find that picture I searched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) archive. Among the images I found was a captioned image taken very early in MRO’s mission showing a crater with concentric rings very similar to the concentric glacial-filled craters. The image at the right is that crater, the image reduced and cropped to post here. As described in that caption,
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Golfing with boulders on the Moon

Boulder tracks on the Moon
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Cool image time! The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team this week released a beautiful image of boulder tracks rolling down the inside slope of 85-mile-wided Antoniadi crater on the far side of the Moon. The image above, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, shows these tracks.

The most obvious track is cool because the boulder almost made, as the scientists note, “a hole-in-one.”

Running from the outcrops to the rim of the partially buried crater is a track etched by a rolling boulder bigger than a bus. Perhaps a moonquake shook it loose. The boulder bounced and rolled toward the partially buried crater, plowing a path that is still visible through the loose material of the slope. When it reached the rim of the partially erased crater, its path curved and it slowed to a stop.

…Had it rolled just 75 meters more, the boulder might have plopped neatly into a 30-meter-diameter young impact crater on the floor of the partially erased crater.

The arrows I have added indicate two more less obvious boulder tracks. If you click on the full resolution image and zoom in you can also see another series of impressions in the middle of the photograph that look like a dotted line, suggesting they were left by a boulder bouncing down the slope.

The scattered of boulders in the floor of the small crater all likely came from the top of the big crater’s rim, which I show in the wider image below.

Wider image showing entire crater slope

The box indicates the location of the image above.

While many things over the eons could caused these boulders to roll (moonquakes, erosion from the solar wind, other nearby impacts), a close look at the ground surrounding them does not show tracks emanating from most, suggesting they have been there a very long time, long enough for the surface reworking caused by the solar wind to have smoothed those tracks out.

The Moon is airless and mostly dead. The solar wind is incredibly weak. Any changes caused by it will take a lot of time. Consider the time required to smooth out those tracks. The mind boggles.

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Tsunamis on Mars?

New research has found further evidence of past tsunamis on Mars along the transition zone between the northern lowlands (where an intermittent ocean might have once existed) and the southern highlands, caused when a bolide crashed into that ocean.

The new research simulated the height of the tsunami waves and their propagation direction, run-up elevation and distance for three potential sea levels and compared these models with the Martian deposits.

The study’s results suggest several potential impact craters, 30 to 50 kilometers (19 to 31 miles) in diameter, as the source of the tsunami events. The largest tsunami waves may have been 300 meters (984 feet) high – nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower – following the impact, and waves up to 75 meters (246 feet) high – nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The waves ultimately reached the Martian coast, potentially traveling up to 150 kilometers (93 miles) past the shoreline.

Below the fold is a video showing the simulation of one such impact and tsunami.
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A lunar crater wall two miles high

Giordano Bruno crater

Cool image time! Considering this week is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, it seems appropriate to show some cool images from the Moon.

Today the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team released a spectacular oblique image of Giordano Bruno crater. The image on the right is cropped and very significantly reduced to post here. It looks across the crater, with the near rim across the bottom of the picture and the wall of the far rim filling the photograph’s top half.

That wall is what makes this image cool. It is a cliff about 10,000 feet high, equaling almost two miles. Moreover, at its base is a now-solidified melt pool left over from the impact that made the crater.

Faster than a speeding bullet – or rather ten times faster than a speeding bullet – is a good starting point in terms of grasping the energy released in a typical impact event. That is, for a bullet approaching 2 kilometers in diameter! The pressure and heat that were released during the collision not only excavated a hole much larger than the impactor but also melted a tremendous amount the target rock. Melt was sprayed and sloshed on the forming crater walls where much of it flowed back, seeking the lowest point in the impact crater. From the LROC vantage point you can follow the path taken by impact melt as it flowed across the irregular floor, ponding in closed depressions, and some of it ultimately reaching the lowest point.

Below the fold is a much higher resolution section of this photograph, focused on the crater wall and the melt pool. I have still been forced to reduce the resolution somewhat to post it here. Along that cliff wall can be seen partial avalanches (the dark splotch near the center) as well boulder tracks with the boulders (probably larger than most houses) still visible as white spots at the wall’s base.

The scale here is difficult to imagine. This cliff wall is three times as high as The Abyss, the steepest single drop viewpoint along the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
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Exploring with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Terrain sample
Click for full image.

In my never-ending rummaging through the images released each month from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I have sometimes been puzzled by the titles they choose for some photographs. For example, many pictures each month are simply titled “Terrain Sample.” The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is one example, and its content adds to the mystery.

The photograph itself shows a generally featureless surface. Other than the scattering of small craters, there are only very slight topographical changes, the most obvious of which is the meandering ridge to the east of the largest crater.

I wondered why this picture was taken, and why it was given such a nondescript name. To find out, I emailed Veronica Bray at the University of Arizona. She had requested this image as part of her job as a targeting specialist for MRO. Her answer:
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Strange Martian gullies

Gullies on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken in 2010 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned, the image page is simply entitled “Older Gullies and Channels in Slopes of Softened Large Crater.”

I stumbled upon it today while researching another image taken this year of the “valley networks” in the floor of that same crater. Those networks were intriguing, but the gullies on the right were much more fascinating, because they appear to be some form of erosion drainage coming down both sides of a high ridge near the northern rim of this large apparently unnamed crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, to the west of Hellas Basin.

On Earth my immediate explanation for this erosion would be a major monsoon-like storm, such as we get here in the southwest and call “gully-washers.” When a lot of water is quickly dumped onto a hill where there is not of vegetation to help bind the soil together, the water will quickly carve out gullies that looks almost exactly like these.

On Mars, who knows? It certainly wasn’t a monsoon thunderstorm that did this. And being in the Martian southern highlands it is unlikely it was from an ocean of any kind. Were there lakes here? Past research has found places where lakes might have existed on Mars, but these places are far north in the transitional zone into the northern lowlands.

Nor are these gullies the only interesting features in this one image.
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Mass wasting on Mars

Mass wasting in Martian crater
Click to see full image.

Cool image time! Mass wasting is a term that geologists use to describe a specific kind of avalanche, where the material moves down slope suddenly in a single mass.

The image on the right, taken from the image archive of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and reduced in resolution to post here, shows a dramatic example of this kind of avalanche. You can see two separate avalanches, each of which moved a significant blob of material down slope into the center of the crater floor.

Studying such events is important. Scientists know that Mars has an underground ice table at high latitudes. What they don’t know is how far south that ice table extends. This crater is located at 5 degrees north latitude, almost at the equator, so if this avalanche exposed any ice in newly exposed cliff wall that would be a significant discovery.

Based on the color image, there does not appear to be any obvious ice layers, as seen in higher latitude scarps in the southern hemisphere. This doesn’t prove they aren’t there, merely that this image was unable to see them. Maybe the resolution is not good enough. Maybe the ice is too well mixed in with the dust and dirt and it therefore isn’t visible. Maybe the ice table is deeper underground than the deepest part of this crater.

Or it could be that at the Martian equator the underground ice is mostly gone. For future colonists, knowing this fact will influence where they put those first colonies. Near the equator has some advantages, but if there is little easily accessible water those advantages mostly vanish.

At the moment we simply do not know, though much of the imagery now being taken from orbit are attempts to answer this question.

One final detail about the image. Note the slope streaks coming down the crater’s slopes. These remain their own Martian mystery.

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Wind and/or water erosion on the Martian northern lowlands

A mesa in the northern Martian lowlands
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The picture on the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to show here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on April 21, 2019, and shows the erosion process produced by either wind or water as it flowed from the east to the west past one small mesa.

It is almost certain that the erosion here was caused by wind, but as we don’t know when this happened, it could also be very old, and have occurred when this terrain was at the bottom of the theorized intermittent ocean that some believe once existed on these northern lowlands. The location itself, near the resurgences for Marineris Valles and the other drainages coming down from the giant volcanoes, might add weight to a water cause, except that the erosional flow went from east to west, and the resurgences were coming from the opposite direction, the west and the south.

The terrain has that same muddy wet look also seen in the more damp high latitudes near the poles. Here, at 43 degrees latitude, it is presently unknown however how much water remains below the surface.

When the craters to the right were created, however, it sure does appear that the ground was damp. Similarly, the material flow to the west of the mesa looks more like the kind of mud flow one would see underwater.

I must emphasize again that I am merely playing at being a geologist. No one should take my guesses here very seriously.

At the same time, I can’t help being endlessly fascinated by the mysterious nature of the Martian terrain.

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Ghost dunes on Mars

A ghost dune
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Cool image time! The Mars Reconnaissance (MRO) science team today released a captioned image of several ghost dunes on Mars. The image on the right is cropped and reduced to highlight one of those ghosts, which the scientists explain as follows.

Long ago, there were large crescent-shaped (barchan) dunes that moved across this area, and at some point, there was an eruption. The lava flowed out over the plain and around the dunes, but not over them. The lava solidified, but these dunes still stuck up like islands. However, they were still just dunes, and the wind continued to blow. Eventually, the sand piles that were the dunes migrated away, leaving these “footprints” in the lava plain.

The location of these ghost dunes is inside the southeast edge of Hellas Basin, what I call the bottom of Mars.

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The big water volcano on Ceres

Scientists have proposed a new detailed model to explain the formation of the large mountain Ahuna Mons on the asteroid Ceres.

The new theory doesn’t change the generally accepted idea that this mountain is a ice volcano, formed by the rise of a brine from below. It simply provides some details about the process.

A study involving scientists from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) has now solved the mystery of how Ahuna Mons, as the mountain is called, was formed, using gravity measurements and investigations of the geometrical form of Ceres. A bubble made of a mixture of salt water, mud and rock rose from within the dwarf planet. The bubble pushed the ice-rich crust upwards, and at a structural weak point the muddy substance, comprising salts and hydrogenated silicates, was pushed to the surface, solidified in the cold of space, in the absence of any atmosphere, and piled up to form a mountain. Ahuna Mons is an enormous mud volcano.

The bubble would be the equivalent of a magma chamber of lava here on Earth.

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Crater? Pit? Volcano?

Crater? Pit? Volcano?
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Cool image time! The photograph on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 16, 2019 of the slope of a mountain inside a region dubbed Eridania that is part of the planet’s southern highlands.

The photograph, released as part of the June image release from MRO, came with no caption. Furthermore, the image title, “Eridania Mons,” provided no additional information, which is why I clicked on it. The vagueness of the title made me curious.

The full image shows a generally featureless plain. Near the image’s bottom however was the geological feature shown in the cropped section to the right. At first glance one thinks it is a crater. This first impression can’t be the entire story, because the feature is raised above the surrounding terrain, and in that sense is more like a small volcano with a caldera. The irregular pit inside the caldera kind of confirms this conclusion.

I would not bet much money on this conclusion. The overall terrain of the Eridania quadrangle is filled with craters, large and small. There does not seem to be any obvious evidence of past volcanic activity, and if there had been it has not expressed itself in large volcanoes.

However, other images of this mountain show many circular features that at first glance appear to be craters like the featured image. They appear slightly raised above the surrounding terrain, though not in as pronounced a manner.

They all could be small volcanoes. Or maybe they are impacts that hit a dense surface which prevented them from drilling too deep down, and instead caused the crater to be raised above the surrounding terrain.

‘Tis a puzzle. The irregular pit in this particular feature adds to the mystery. It does not look like the kind of pits one sees in calderas. Instead, its rough edge suggests wind erosion.

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Rover update: May 30, 2019

Summary: Curiosity confirms clay in the clay unit. Yutu-2 begins its sixth day on the far side of the Moon. Three other rovers move towards completion and launch.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Clouds over Gale Crater
Clouds over Gale Crater

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity’s journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater goes on! On the right is one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

This clay-enriched region, located on the side of lower Mount Sharp, stood out to NASA orbiters before Curiosity landed in 2012. Clay often forms in water, which is essential for life; Curiosity is exploring Mount Sharp to see if it had the conditions to support life billions of years ago. The rover’s mineralogy instrument, called CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), provided the first analyses of rock samples drilled in the clay-bearing unit. CheMin also found very little hematite, an iron oxide mineral that was abundant just to the north, on Vera Rubin Ridge. [emphasis mine]

That two geological units adjacent to each other are so different is significant for geologists, because the difference points to two very different geological histories. The formation process for both the clay unit and Vera Rubin Ridge must have occurred at different times under very different conditions. Figuring out how that happened will be difficult, but once done it will tell us much about both Gale Crater and Mars itself.

With the success of their clay unit drilling campaign, the Curiosity science team has had the rover begin its trek back from the base of the cliff below Vera Rubin Ridge to its planned travel route up the mountain.

An updated description of that route was released by the Curiosity science team last week, while I was in Wales. Below is their image showing that route, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
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The mysterious slope streaks of Mars

Massive flow on Mars
A typical Martian slope streak.

The uncertainty of science: In the past decade or so scientists have documented in detail a number of features on the Martian surface that evolve or change over time. From the constantly changing poles to the tracks of dust devils to landslides to the appearance of seasonal frost, we have learned that Mars is far from a dead world. Things are happening there, and while they are not happening as quickly or with as much energy as found on Earth, geological changes are still occurring with regular frequency, and in ways that we do not yet understand.

Of the known changing features on Mars, two are especially puzzling. These are the two types of changing streaks on the slopes of Martian cliffs, dubbed recurring slope lineae (referred as RSLs by scientists) and slope streaks.

Lineae are seasonal, first appearing during the Martian summer to grow hundreds of feet long, and then to fade away with the arrival of winter. Their seasonal nature and appearance with the coming of warm temperatures suggests that water plays a part in their initiation, either from a seep of briny water downhill or an avalanche of dust begun by. Or a combination of both. The data however does not entirely fit these theories, and in fact is downright contradictory. Some studies (such as this one and this one) say that the seasonal lineae are caused by water. Other studies (such as this one and this one) say little or no water is involved in their seasonal formation.

The answer remains elusive, and might only be answered, if at all, when Curiosity takes a close look at two lineae in the coming years.

Slope streaks however are the focus of this post, as they are even more puzzling, and appear to possibly represent a phenomenon entirely unique to Mars. I became especially motivated to write about these mysterious ever newly appearing features when, in reviewing the May image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found four different uncaptioned images of slope streaks, all titled “Slope Stream Monitoring.” From this title it was clear that the MRO team was re-imaging each location to see if any change had occurred since an earlier image was taken. A quick look in the MRO archive found identical photographs for all four slope streak locations, taken from 2008 to 2012, and in all four cases, new streaks had appeared while older streaks had faded. You can see a side-by-side comparison of all four images below the fold.
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