Tag Archives: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Tongue-shaped glaciers on Mars

Tongue-shaped glacier on Mars
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Cool image time! I could also call this another example of mass wasting, which it appears to be according to my understanding of Martian geological processes. However, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team dubbed this image “Tongue-Shaped Glaciers in Centauri Montes,” and I have no right to disagree with them.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and brightened to post here, shows the most prominent tongue-shaped glacier in the full image. The two curved ridges to the south of the glacier’s tip are almost certainly old moraines of debris pushed there during earlier events, when the glacier material extended farther out. In fact, if you look close you can see that this tongue lies on top of a larger older tongue that lines up with the closer of these two ridges.

This feature is located at 37 degrees south latitude, which puts it inside Mars’s southern glacial band that extends from 30 to 60 degrees latitude. According to the present defined types of Martian glaciers, this tongue is what scientists have dubbed a lobate debris apron, a glacier that in many ways resembles glaciers we see on Earth.

The location of this feature is especially interesting, especially because other images have found that it is not unique to this region.
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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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More potential Starship landing sites on Mars

Starship landing sites

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

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

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

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

Both the Phlega Montes location and #3 above appear to be looking at soft slushy material that might have a lot of water just below the surface.
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Avalanche season at the Martian north pole

Avalanche on-going at the edge of Mars' north pole icecap
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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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Taking a look back at a Martian pit

Pavonis Mons pit
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The pit to the right could almost be considered the first “cool image” on Behind the Black. It was first posted on June 20, 2011. Though I had already posted a number of very interesting images, this appears to be the first that I specifically labeled as “cool.”

The image, taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), had been requested by a seventh grade Mars student team at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, and shows a pit on the southeastern flank of the volcano Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in Mars’ well-known chain of three giant volcanoes. A close look at the shadowed area with the exposure cranked up suggests that this pit does not open up into a more extensive lava tube.

What inspired me to repost this image today was the release of a new image from Mars Odyssey of this pit and the surrounding terrain, taken on July 31, 2019 and shown below to the right.
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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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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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The glaciers of Mars

The glaciers on Mars

For the future colonists of Mars, the question of finding water will not be that much of a problem. Not only have planetary geologists mapped out the existence of extensive water-ice in the Martian poles, they have found that the planet apparently has widespread glacier deposits in two mid-latitude belts from 30 to 60 degrees latitude.

The question will be whether those Martian settlers will be able to easily access this water. The data so far suggests that much of the Martian underground water at high latitudes is likely mixed with dust and debris. Extracting it might not be straightforward. There are hints that the ice table at latitudes about 55 degrees might be more pure, but could be somewhat deep below ground, requiring the settlers to become miners to obtain their water. Moreover, all these high latitude locations are in environments that are more hostile, and therefore more difficult to establish a colony.

What about the glaciers? The global map of Mars above, reduced and annotated to post here, shows what are believed to be extensive glacial deposits at lower latitudes, and comes from a recently published paper on the subject. The different colors indicate the different types of glacial deposits the scientists have identified.

Green and yellow indicate what scientists call lineated valley fill (LVF) and lobate debris aprons (LDA) respectively, glacial deposits found in the transition zone between the southern highlands and either the northern lowland plains or the basins of the southern hemisphere, Hellas and Argyre. These glaciers are in many ways most similar to glaciers found on Earth, flows heading downhill along natural geographic features.

Magenta represents concentric crater fill (CCF), glacier features which seem very evenly distributed across both the northern and southern lower mid-latitude belts. Here scientists appear to have detected buried ice within the floors of craters.

The paper which included this map focused on describing a new glacial feature, something they dubbed valley fill deposits (VFD), that they had found so far in only one place, as indicated by the black square on the map.

The photograph below and on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, is from figure two of the linked paper.
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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Curiosity

Curiosity as seen from orbit

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team today released an image taken on May 31, 2019 by the orbiter’s HiRISE high resolution camera of Curiosity when it was nestled against the cliff at the bottom of Vera Rubin Ridge.

The image above is that enhanced color image, reduced and annotated to post here. I have added the track of Curiosity’s route down from Vera Rubin Ridge leading up to the point where this picture was snapped.

In the image, Curiosity appears as a bluish speck. Vera Rubin Ridge cuts across the scene north of the rover, while a dark patch of sand lies to the northeast.

Look carefully at the inset image, and you can make out what it is likely Curiosity’s “head,” technically known as the remote sensing mast. A bright spot appears in the upper-left corner of the rover. At the time this image was acquired, the rover was facing 65 degrees counterclockwise from north, which would put the mast in about the right location to produce this bright spot.

Mirror-like reflections off smooth surfaces show up as especially bright spots in HiRISE images. For the camera to see these reflections on the rover, the Sun and MRO need to be in just the right locations. This enhanced-color image of Curiosity shows three or four distinct bright spots that are likely such reflections.

From this location Curiosity first continued along the cliff’s base to study that dark patch of sand to the northeast, then it turned almost due south in order to get back to its nominal route into Gediz Valles canyon, as shown in my May 30, 2019 rover update.

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The Martian seabed?

Cones and strange blobs
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Cool image time! Above is an image taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in November 2018 of an area in the vast relatively featureless northern lowlands of Mars. I have rotated, cropped, and reduced it to post here.

I have also indicated two sections, indicated by the white boxes, that I have cropped out of the full resolution image to highlight some interesting features. Both images can be seen in full resolution below.

While the northern lowlands seem featureless from a distance, with few craters, a closer look always reveals many things that are both baffling and fascinating. In this case the region is called Galaxias Colles, a region of mesas and knobby hills. This particular image was dubbed “Cones in Galaxias Colles,” and was clearly taken to get a better look at these strange blobby features.
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Where are the caves on Mars?

Overview map of pits near Arsia Mons

Each month I go through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). And each month since November I have found a bunch of newly discovered pits photographed in the region around the volcano Arsia Mons (see: November 12, 2018, January 30, 2019, February 22, 2019, April 2, 2019, and May 7, 2019). The map on the right has been updated to include all those previous pits, indicated by the black boxes, with the new pits from June shown by the numbered white boxes.

To the right are the first three pits in the June archive, with the link to each image site found here (#1), here (#2), and here (#3).

Pits 1 through 3
For full images: Number 1, Number 2, Number 3.

All three are what the scientists doing this research call Atypical Pit Craters:

These Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios that are usually greater than 0.3 (which is an upper range value for impacts and bowl-shaped pit craters) and can exceed values of 1.8. Observations by the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) show that APC floor temperatures are warmer at night and fluctuate with much lower diurnal amplitudes than nearby surfaces or adjacent bowl-shaped pit craters.

The fourth pit, shown in the reduced and cropped image below, might actually be the most interesting of the June lot.
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The expanding range for Martian ice scarps

Another ice scarp
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The discovery in January 2018 of a number of Martian cliff faces, or scarps as the scientists dubbed them, with a visible and apparently very accessible underground layer of ice, had significant ramifications.

First, it proved that, in at least one area south of Hellas Basin and one spot in the northern hemisphere, an underground ice table existed on Mars at latitudes as far south as 55 degrees. Scientists had theorized that this ice table, comparable to the water table on Earth, existed, but here was visible proof.

Second, the discovery showed places where water could be accessed relatively easily by future colonists. There are plenty of indications from orbiter images and lander/rover data that water is present in many places on Mars, but here the water appeared almost pure and could be obtained without major digging or processing. Whether that ice table extends even farther south, making it even more accessible, remains as yet a scientific question.

In the next few months the scientists involved in this research located more ice scarps in areas beyond the range of those initial discoveries. Since then however even more scarps have been found, including the scarp in the image above and to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here.

This particular scarp is located inside a crater. The uncaptioned release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), described it as a “Scarp in mantling material.” According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
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Another odd crater on Mars

Odd shaped crater
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Cool image time! In a sense, to announce that scientists have found an oddly shaped crater on Mars is to state the obvious. In the years since the first Martian fly-by by Mariner 4 in 1965, scientists have been discovering numerous odd-shaped craters on Mars, every single of which has challenged our assumptions about the planet’s geology. I myself have posted a half dozen such posts since January (January 7, January 10, January 14, March 26, March 27, June 12).

Yet, it is always worth looking when another one crops up, because of the fact that they challenge our assumptions about Martian geology. They are also always cool to look at! On the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 19, 2019 of what the scientists have dubbed an “Odd Shaped Crater in Arabia Terra.”

Overview map

Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. This crater is located, as shown by the red cross in the overview map to the right, near its northern edge, in an area where the descent into the northern lowlands is somewhat abrupt and broken up by large craters and chaos terrain.

The crater itself holds numerous geological mysteries. Its shape suggests two impacts of different sizes overlapping each other, but without any remnant of the inner rim of the second impact. Where did that remnant go? Or maybe this wasn’t caused by two impacts, but by one impact that reshaped the surface in this odd and inexplicable way.

Then there is the three teardrop-shaped patterns in the crater’s floor. They look like the brushstrokes of a giant-sized painter. Were they caused by the wind? And if so, why in this pattern?

Planetary geologists could probably come up with a dozen more questions. The number tells us how little we know about Mars.

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Exploring with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Terrain sample
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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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Mass wasting on Mars

Mass wasting in Martian crater
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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
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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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The damp southern latitudes of Mars

Impact craters on the southern permafrost of Mars
Click for the full image.

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped to post here, was part of the monthly image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The release came with no caption, and was merely titled Aonia Terra, indicating that it was part of the vast cratered region ranging from 30 to 81 degrees latitude south of Valles Marineris.

These craters are at the high latitude of 73 degrees, so they are relatively close to the south pole. Based on what I have recently learned about the Martian poles, the higher the latitude the more water you will find saturated in the ground. In many ways one could refer to this ground as a kind of permafrost.

The lander Phoenix landed at about 68 degrees north latitude, slighter farther from the north pole, and was able to find water by merely scraping off a few inches of ground.

Thus, we should not be surprised by the muddy look of these craters. Their bolides landed on ground that was likely saturated with water, and went splat when they hit.

The scientific puzzle is why one crater seems to sit above the general surface, as if the ground resisted the impact, while the other seems to be mostly sunken, as if the ground was so soft that when the bolide hit, it sunk as if it landed on quicksand, leaving only a vague trace of an impact crater.

Don’t ask me for an explanation. I only work here.

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Ghost dunes on Mars

A ghost dune
Click for full image.

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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Land of stucco and lava-filled cracks

Stucco and filled cracks on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The picture on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in December 2018 and released earlier this year. It shows a filled fault/fissure in a region dubbed Cereberus Palus, located south of the giant volcano Elysium Mons and to the west of Olympus Mons. This region is also biggest and most extensive sections of the transition zone between Mars’s southern highlands and the northern lowlands. This area however is so far from the lowlands its geology is more likely influenced more by the volcanism that created Elysium Mons to the north.

Overview map

The overview map to the right illustrates this geography, with the black square indicating the location of this image.

The image itself strengthens my uneducated conclusion. This region of Cereberus Palus is filled with many faults, cracks caused as the terrain was stretched by the rising volcano. In some cases, as shown here, the cracks became filled with lava from below, as indicated by the lighter color of the material in those filled cracks..

What struck me most about this image was the terrain on the picture’s right. Looks exactly like the stucco on the outside of my house. It is as if a plasterer came by before the lava solidified and ran his putty knife over the surface to create the multiple small ridges.

It is worthwhile checking out the full resolution image. The details are especially intriguing.

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The Martian North Pole

The Martian North Pole

Since the very beginning of telescopic astronomy, the Martian poles have fascinated. Their changing sizes as the seasons progressed suggested to the early astronomers that Mars might be similar to Earth. Since the advent of the space age we have learned that no, Mars is not similar to Earth, and that its poles only resemble Earth’s in a very superficial way.

Yet, understanding the geology and seasonal evolution of the Martian poles is critical to understanding the planet itself.

This post will focus on the Martian north pole. The map on the right of the north polar regions is based on many satellite images supplemented by a lot of research by planetary scientists. The black circle in the middle is an area with relatively poor image coverage. The green areas are regions of higher elevation where the bulk of the permanent ice cap is located, surrounded by the blue northern lowlands that cover much of Mars’s northern hemisphere and are thought to have once harbored an intermittent ocean.

Olympia Undae dune field
Click for full image.

The reddish regions encircling the permanent ice cap are large seas of sand dunes, with Olympia Undae the largest and most sand-dune-packed. The image on the right, posted initially here on March 25, 2016, was taken by Mars Odyssey and shows the endlessness of this dune sea. Olympia Undae, spanning 120 degrees of longitude, is about 700 miles long, making it bigger than the Grand Canyon. As I noted in that post, “Just imagine trying to travel though this area. It is the epitome of a trackless waste. And without some form of GPS system getting lost forever would be incredibly easy.”

The polar cap itself, surrounded by those sand seas, is 600 miles across and a little less than 7,000 feet deep. It is made up of many seasonal layers, like the icecaps on Earth, with the bulk a mixture of water ice and cemented dust and sand. The very top layers, dubbed the residual icecap, is about three to six feet thick made up of frozen water having a volume about half of Greenland’s icecap. While this water could evaporate away, data suggests it is, like the icecaps on Earth, in a steady state, neither gaining or losing volume with each Martian year.

Above the residual icecap of water is the seasonal icecap made up of carbon dioxide. Unlike the other layers, this seasonal cap of dry ice, also less than six feet thick, comes and goes with the seasons. During the Martian summer it is gone, the carbon dioxide having sublimated away into the atmosphere. As the weather chills however that carbon dioxide begins to freeze again, falling as CO2 snow on the surface at the poles to create a thin cap of dry ice extending down to about 60 degrees latitude and covering practically everything seen in the first map above.

These facts suggest that future Martian colonists will have an interest in this region. While harsher than the rest of the planet, the conditions at the poles are not so much different that it will be impossible to work here. And here they will find a ready supply of carbon dioxide to help their plants grow, as well as a ready supply of water, all easily mined and near the surface.

In order to understand how this dry ice cap comes and goes, scientists have been using the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to repeatedly monitor some of the same locations in these sand seas to track the seasonal changes. In my routine review of the new images downloaded from MRO in May, I came across more than a dozen such images, all of which had been requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and taken just as the Martian winter was ending and spring was beginning. As she explained to me, “The images I’m requesting now follow-up on many of our earlier study sites so that we can study interannual variability. We’re also looking at more places to get a sense of what is similar/different depending on where you are.”

Below are two of these recent images, showing one example of the springtime changes that can be seen on these dunes.
» Read more

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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.
» Read more

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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.
» Read more

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The floor of Marineris Valles

Close-up of the floor of Marineris Valles

Larger view
Click for the full image.

To the right is small section cropped out of an image, taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on March 30, 2019, of one very tiny area of the floor of the 2,500 mile long Marineris Valles, the biggest known canyon in the solar system.

Below this on the right is a larger section of the full image, with the white box showing the part covered by the top photograph. The general flow direction is to the east.

The photograph, uncaptioned, is titled “Terminus of Pitted Materials Emanating from Oudemans Crater.” Oudemans Crater is about 55 miles across and is located near the head of Marineris Valles to the east of the giant volcanic region dubbed the Tharsis Bulge. The meteorite that caused this crater is estimated to have been a little less than 3 miles in diameter. It is believed by some scientists that the impact heated up subsurface carbon dioxide permafrost which then explosively flooded down the Valles Marineris into the Northern Plains of Mars, pushing a lot of pulverized debris in front of it..

Instead of liquid water, what is stored underground on Mars is liquid CO2 and when a collapse occurs, this boils almost instantly and explosively to CO2 vapour, blasting the rock and regolith to dust, except for the most resistant fragments such as igneous rocks. The rest of the regolith is composed of dust and gravel, weakly cemented by water ice. On Mars, water is not a fluid, but behaves as a mineral in most situations. Grains of ice would be tumbled along in the cryogenic flows, and transported as passive solids just like quartz grains are transported as sand by rivers on Earth.

This theory, if correct, would eliminate the need for liquid water on the surface, and would explain many of the planet’s geological surface features.

Overview

The overview thumbnail to the left shows the location of both Oudemans Crater and this MRO image, indicated by the very tiny blue rectangle near the thumbnail’s center..

The “pitted materials” in the image’s title refers to that flowing avalanche of pulverized ice, rock, and dust, shown in the picture by the curved terraced cliffs descending to the east. This is where this material settled as it flowed eastward, pushed by that explosive CO2 flood.

You can see another example of this eastward flow in another MRO image taken just to the west. The canyon floor is pitted, confused, and rough, but there is an obvious flow trend to the east.

In fact, much of the floor of Marineris Valles that has been photographed at high resolution is similarly rugged. It will be a challenge to explore this place, especially because we have only imaged a small percentage at high resolution. There is much there that remains unseen and unknown.

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Fractured and collapsed Martian crater floor

Fractured and collapse Martian crater floor
Click for full image.

Time for some puzzling Martian geology. The image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, comes from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) high resolution archive, and shows a strangely collapsed and fractured crater floor. In fact, like a number of other Martian craters, rather than having a central peak, the center of the crater floor, shown at the image’s center right, seems depressed.

The crater is located in a region dubbed the Cerberus Plains, in a hilly subregion called Tartarus Colles. Of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands these plains comprise the second largest region.

Being in the transition zone I would guess that the geology here is strongly influenced by the ebb and flow of the slowly retreating intermittent ocean that is thought to have once existed in the nearby lowlands. As water came and went, it created a variety of shoreline features scattered about, but not in a single sharp line as we would expect on Earth. Think more like tidal pools, where in some areas water gets trapped and left behind only to sublimate away at at later time.

We can see some hints of these processes in the images of the floors of two other craters that I have previously highlighted, here and here.

With this geological overview in mind, the broken plates here remind me of features I’ve seen in caves. Mud gets washed into a passage, partly filling it. Over time a gentle water flow over the surface of the mud deposits a crust of calcite flowstone on top of the mud. Should the water flow suddenly increase, it will wash out the mud below the crust. If the crust is not very strong or thick, it will crack into pieces as it falls, and thus resemble what we see here in this Martian crater.

There are cases where the crust becomes thick enough to remain standing, which produces some spectacular hanging calcite draperies that seem to defy explanation.

The collapse in the center of the crater is more puzzling, but suggests, based on comparable-looking Earth geology, that any perched water in this canyon might have actually drained out through underground drainage, accessed through the depression.

Be warned: All my explanations above are based on what exists on Earth, and Mars is very different from Earth. The lower gravity, colder temperatures, and different chemistry guarantee that the geological processes there will not be identical. We start by using what we know here, but recognize that we need to learn more about Mars to truly understand what goes on there.

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