Tag Archives: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

New impact on the Martian south polar cap

New impact on Mars' south pole

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on October 5, 2018 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows a recent meteorite impact that occurred sometime between July and September of 2018 on the Martian polar cap . If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph. As noted in the captioned press release,

It’s notable because it occurred in the seasonal southern ice cap, and has apparently punched through it, creating a two-toned blast pattern.

The impact hit on the ice layer, and the tones of the blast pattern tell us the sequence. When an impactor hits the ground, there is a tremendous amount of force like an explosion. The larger, lighter-colored blast pattern could be the result of scouring by winds from the impact shockwave. The darker-colored inner blast pattern is because the impactor penetrated the thin ice layer, excavated the dark sand underneath, and threw it out in all directions on top of the layer.

Location on edge of south polar cap

It is not known yet the size of this meteorite. The location is shown in the overview image to the right, with the impact indicated by the white dot. The black circle in the middle of the image is the south pole itself, an area where MRO’s orbit does not allow imagery. This location, on the edge of the Martian polar cap, is helpful to scientists because it has excavated material from below the cap, providing them a peek into previously unseen the geology there. Had the impact been farther south, on the thicker cap, that hidden material below the cap would likely not have been exposed.

The cap itself is made up of both ice and frozen carbon dioxide, though the CO2 is mostly seen as frost during winter months that evaporates during the summer.


Volcanic vent between Arsia and Pavonis Monsa

volcanic vent on Mars

Cool image time. The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken in September by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was part of the November image release. Click on the image to see the entire photograph at full resolution.

The uncaptioned release dubs this feature as “Small Eruptive Vents South of Pavonis Mons.” In truth, these vent pits are located almost exactly the same distance from both Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in the line of three giant Martian volcanoes, and Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the three.

The image is interesting for several reasons. First, note the bulge surrounding the vent, making this look almost like a miniature volcano all its own. In fact, that is probably what it is. When it was active that bulge was likely caused by that activity, though it is hard to say whether the bulge was caused by flow coming from out of the vent, or by pressure from below pushing upward to cause the ground to rise. It could even have been a combination of both.

To my eye, most of the bulge was probably caused from pressure from below pushing upward. The edge of the bulge does not look like the leading edge of a lava flow. Still, this probably happened so long ago that Martian wind erosion and dust could have obscured that leading edge.

That this is old is indicated by the dunelike ripples inside the large pit, and the pond of trapped dust in the smaller pit. Because of the thinness of the Martian atmosphere it takes time to gather that much dust, during which time no eruptions have occurred.

One more interesting detail: If you look at the pits in full resolution, you will see that, based on the asymmetrical wind patterns between the west and east rims, the prevailing winds here are from the west. Located as it is just to the east of the gigantic saddle between Arsia and Pavonis Mons, this wind orientation makes sense, as a saddle between mountains tends to concentrate the wind, much like a narrowed section in a river produces faster water flow and rapids. As for why the wind blows mostly from the west, my guess (which should not be taken very seriously) is that it is probably caused by the same meteorological phenomenon that causes this generally on Earth, the planet’s rotation.


Weird erosion in large Martian craters

Central pit in Asimov Crater

Cool image time! In reviewing the images in the December image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO, I came across the image to the right, cropped, rotated and reduced to post here, showing the western half of the central pit of Asimov Crater. (Click on the link for the entire photograph.) The eastern half can be seen here.

It is unusual to see central pits in craters. One instead expects to see central peaks. The pit itself is intriguing because of its sinkhole appearance. In both the northwest and southwest corners you can clearly see drainages flowing down into the pit, including recent faint darkened streaks indicative of past seep avalanches. The same can been seen for the pit’s eastern half. Along the pit’s western rim are parallel cracks suggesting that the plateau itself is slowly shifting downward into the pit.

Furthermore, the rim cliff has multiple drainage gullies, all beginning just below the initial top layers. The look of those cliffs is very similar to what sees on the walls of the Grand Canyon, where the top of the cliffs show layers with the bottom of the cliffs buried under a slope of alluvial fill, material that has fallen to slowly form those slopes. The drainage gullies however would have come later, and suggest that some form of seepage is coming out of the contact between the layers at the top of the slope.

A look at the context image below and to the right reveals the greater mystery of this crater, as well as nearby Maunder Crater, the subject of a recent captioned image release from Mars Odyssey.

context map showing Asimov and Maunder Craters

In both cases a circular interior gully separates the crater floor from the crater’s rim. In fact, the crater floor almost appears raised. This is especially striking with Asimov Crater, where the central floor appears like a very flat plateau, except for that central pit and the surrounding gully.

The MRO team has taken a lot of images of the gullies, which you can see if you zoom in to latitude -46.843° longitude 4.831° on the map image at this website. It is clear that they want to know more about the origins of this geology. It suggests water flow, even though these craters are located in the Martian southern highlands, a place that is more reminiscent of the Moon, with many ancient craters and far less evidence of significant change.

What the geology in these two craters suggest is that some erosion process is eating away at the crater floors, beginning at its edges as well where there are voids below that allow the surface to sink. While that erosion is certainly helped by wind, it also implies the presence of underground water, either as ice or liquid, in the past and even possibly today.


Lopsided ejecta from Martian crater

Crater with unequal ejecta

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, comes from the December image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). (If you click on the image you can see the full resolution uncropped photograph.) Released without a caption, the release itself is intriguingly entitled, “Crater with Preferential Ejecta Distribution on Possible Glacial Unit.

The uneven distribution of ejecta material around the crater is obvious. For some reason, the ground was preferentially disturbed to the north by the impact. Moreover, the entire crater and its surrounding terrain look like the impact occurred in a place that was saturated somewhat with liquid, making the ground soft like mud.

That there might have been liquid or damp material here when this impact occurred is reinforced by the fact that this crater is located in the middle of Amazonis Planitia, one of the larger regions of Mars’ vast northern lowland plains, where there is evidence of the past existence of an intermittent ocean.

This however really does not answer the question of why most of the impact’s ejecta fell to the north of the crater. From the release title is appears the planetary geologists think that this uneven distribution occurred because the impact occurred on a glacier. As the ground has a lighter appearance just to the south of the crater, I suspect their reasoning is that this light ground was hard bedrock while the darker material to the north was that glacial unit where the ground was more easily disturbed.

This is a guess however (a common requirement by anyone trying to explain the strange features so often found on the Martian surface). Other theories are welcome of course, and could easily be correct as well.


Flowing cracked mud on Mars?

mud cracks in crater?

Cool image time! The image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, comes from the December image release of the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO. Uncaptioned, the release titles this image “Cracks in Crater Deposit in Acheron Fossae.” If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph at full resolution.

Clearly the cracks appear to be caused by a downward slumping to the north, almost like a glacier made of mud. We can also see places on the image’s right edge where the mud appears to have flowed off a north-south trending ridge, then flowed downhill to the north. All of this flow is away from the crater’s central peak, which is only partly seen in the photograph near the bottom. That section is the central peak’s southwestern end, with the whole peak a ridge curving to the northeast beyond the edge of the image.

At the north edge of this mud flow the cracks become wider canyons, as if long term erosion is slowing washing the mud away. The flow then stair steps downward in a series of parallel benches. Meanwhile, in the flat central area of the mud flow above can be seen oblong depressions suggesting sinks that also flow to the north.

crater context overview

You can get a better idea of the crater’s overall floor and central peak by the low resolution context image to the right. The white rectangular box indicates the area covered by the full image above. A close look at this part of the crater floor suggests to me a circular feature like a faint eroded smaller crater that includes as its eastern rim the larger crater’s central peak. This impression suggests that the flows seen in the full resolution image are heading downhill into the lowest point of this smaller crater, that upon impact had reshaped the larger crater’s floor.

This impression however is far from conclusive. The features in the large crater could simply be the random geology that often occurs in the floors of impact craters.

What makes this particular mud slide most interesting, as is usually the case for most Martian terrain, is its location.
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Dust devil tracks on the Martian southern highlands

Dust devil tracks

Today’s cool image is cool because of how little is there. The image to the right, cropped to post here, was part of the December image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The uncaptioned release labeled this image simply as “Southern Intercrater Plains.” Located in the Martian southern highlands, this location is located almost due south of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the chain of three giant volcanoes to the west of Marineris Valles (as indicated by the white dot on the overview image below).

If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph, though in this case it won’t show you much else than in the excerpt to the right. The terrain here appears flat. The only features of note are some small knobs and the random dark lines that are almost certainly accumulated dust devil tracks. There are also many dark spots, which might also be the shadows of even smaller knobs, but could also be instrument artifacts. I am not sure.

Location of dust devil image

The southern highlands are mostly cratered, with few signs that water ever flowed there. This image for example gives the impression of a vast lonely terrain that has changed little since the very earliest days of Mars’ history.

I expect that scientists could possibly assign some age to this terrain, merely by studying the dust devil tracks. If we calculate how often dust devils might traverse this place, and then count the tracks, assigning their order by faintness, with the faintest being the oldest, it could be possible to obtain a rough age of the oldest tracks.

Still, all that would do would tell us the approximate length of time in which a dust devil track can remain visible. And even if this is a long time, it doesn’t constrain the age of the surface very much, as the weather on Mars has certainly changed with time, especially because we think the atmosphere was once thicker.

What formed this flat terrain? My first guess would be a lava flow, caused when the numerous nearby craters were formed by impact. These craters were likely created during the great bombardment between 3 and 4 billion years ago, and while they have certainly been modified more than lunar craters because of the presence of an atmosphere on Mars, they are likely to have not changed much during that time. Similarly, this flat terrain is likely much like it was, several billion years ago. Dust devils have deposited dust and their tracks, but the hard bedrock remains as it was soon after it solidified.


Dried mud cracks on Mars?

Mud cracks on Mars?

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

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

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

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

MRO image of Curiosity's future travels

In the December release of images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), there was one image entitled “Monitor Region Near Curiosity Rover.” To the right is a reduced, cropped, and rotated section of that image, annotated by me to show Curiosity’s future planned route (indicated by the yellow line). If you click on the image you can see the untouched full resolution version.

Curiosity’s journey has not yet brought it onto the terrain shown in this image. (For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.) The rover is right now just off the left edge of the photograph, on the white ridge dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge visible in the uppermost left. This week it completed the last planned drill sampling on that ridge, and it will soon descend off the ridge and begin heading along the yellow route up the mountain. The white dots along its future route are the locations of recurring slope lines, believed to be seasonal seeps of brine coming from below and causing gentle landslides that darken the surface. As you can see, they hope to get very close to the first seep, and will observe the second from across the canyon from a distance of about 1,200 feet.

The peak of Mount Sharp is quite a distance to the south, far beyond the bottom of the photograph. Even in these proposed travels the rover will remain in the mountain’s lowest foothills, though the terrain will be getting considerably more dramatic.

Below is a full resolution section of the image showing the spectacular canyon to the south of that second seep. This is where Curiosity will be going, a deep canyon about 1,500 feet across and probably as deep, its floor a smooth series of curved layers, reminiscent of The Wave in northern Arizona. The canyon appears to show evidence of water flow down its slopes, but that is unproven.
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Dark dunes, wedding cake mesas, and dust-filled gullies

Dark dunes, wedding cake mesas, and dust-filled gullies

Cool image time! The photo on the right, reduced, rotated, and cropped slightly to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and issued by the spacecraft science team in its December image release.

They didn’t give this image a caption. The release title, “Arabia Terra with Stair-Stepped Hills and Dark Dunes,” significantly understates the wild variety of strange features throughout this terrain. Normally I crop out one section of the photographs I highlight to focus on the most interesting feature, but I couldn’t do it this time. Click on the image to see the full resolution version. Take a look at the complex wedding cake mesas in the lower left. Look also at the streaks of dust that I think are filling the gullies between these hills. In the image’s upper left are those dark dunes, scattered between dust ripples and small indistinct rises and what appears to be a drainage pattern descending to the north. Interspersed with these dunes near the center of the image are several perched crater floors, indicating that the crater impacts happened so long ago that the surrounding terrain had time to erode away, leaving the crater floor hanging like a small plateau.

On the right the two largest mesas rise in even stair-stepped layers that would do the mesas in the Grand Canyon proud.

This could very well be the coolest image I have ever posted. Everywhere you look you see something different, intriguing, and entirely baffling.

Arabia Terra covers the largest section of the transition zone between Mars’s high cratered south and its low flat northern plains, where some scientists believe an intermittent ocean might have once existed. It lies to the east of Valles Marineris, and is crater-filled with numerous intriguing geology, as this image most decidedly illustrates. In this particular case it shows the floor of one of the region’s mid-sized craters.


The vast southern highlands of Mars

Small section of Rocky Highlands

Rocky highlands

Cool image time! This week the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team made available its monthly release of new images taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image above is just a small cropped section from one of those new images, released under the name “Rocky Highlands.” The image on the right is a cropped and reduced section of the full photograph, with the white box indicating the small section above. If you click on either you can see the full resolution uncropped photograph and explore its complex and rough terrain.

What should immediately strike you looking at the small inset section above is the difficulty anyone is going to have traversing this country. There are no flat areas. Every inch seems to be a broken and shattered collection of ridges, pits, craters, or rippled dunes. And the inset above is only a tiny representation of the entire image, all of which shows the same kind of badlands.

This forbidding place is located in the southern highlands of Mars, north of Hellas Basin and south of the transition zone that drops down to the northern lowland plains. The white cross on the map below indicates the image location, with green representing the transition zone, blue the northern plains, and red/orange the southern highlands..
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The bottom of Mars

Hellas Basin ripples

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 2, 2018, and shows some very strange ripples and erosion features in one of the lowest elevation locations on Mars, inside Hellas Basin. If you click on the image you can see the full photograph, at full resolution. There are a lot of strange features here, so make sure you take a look at it. The ripples highlighted in the image are between what appear to be three lower basins, and seem to my eye to be ridges created as liquid ebbed and flowed in the basins, depositing material at the shoreline at repeatedly higher and lower levels.

hellas basin

This particular location is not only in Hellas Basin, but it is also located in the deepest part of Hellas, a curved valley located in the basin’s northwest quadrant, as shown by the darker areas in the overview image to the right. The red boxes are other MRO high resolution images, with the cross indicating where this image is located.

This is the bottom of Mars, what could be called its own Death Valley. The difference however is that unlike Death Valley, conditions here could be more amendable to life, as the lower elevation means the atmosphere is thicker. The ripples also suggest that liquid water might have once been here, a supposition supported by other low area images of Hellas Basin, most of which show a flattish dappled surface that to me resembles what one would think a dry seafloor bed would look like The image in this second link also shows what looks like ghost craters that over time became partly buried, something one would also expect to happen if they were at the bottom of a lake, though this could also happen over time on Mars with wind erosion and the movement of dust.

It is also possible that these features come from lava events, so please take my theorizing here with a great big grain of salt. At the same time, recent results have found evidence of paleo lakes scattered all along the eastern rim of the basin, reinforcing the possibility that these were water filled lakes once as well.

Nonetheless, the ripples in the first image above are truly fascinating, as it is clear that at the highest peaks erosion has ripped those peaks away, leaving behind a hollow shaped by the ripples themselves. These features remind me of some cave features I have seen, where mud gets piled but by water flow, and then is over time covered with a crust of harder calcite flowstone. Later, water then washes out the mud underneath, leaving the curved flowstone blanket hanging in the air.

Here in Hellas Basin it looks like something similar has happened, except that at these peaks the outside crust got broken away, allowing wind to slowly suck out the material underneath, leaving these ripple-shaped pits. Whether it was liquid water or lava that helped create these features, the geology left behind is both beautiful and intriguing. I wonder at the chemical make-up of the crust as well as the materials below. And I especially wonder if there is water sources buried within Hellas Basin.


Volcanic rivers on Mars

Granicus Valles

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

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

Overview of Elysium Mons and Granicus Valles

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

Pits near Arsia Mons

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

Mars overview showing pit locations

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

Fractures on Mars

Cool image time! Today the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team released another month’s worth of images from the spacecraft’s high resolution camera. The picture on the right, reduced in resolution to post here, was the first image that I took a close look at, and decided it was worth posting immediately. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution version.

This image lacks a caption, but the release webpage is titled “Fractured Crater Floor.” It shows several cross-crossing fissures, some wide enough for dust to gather within into sand dunes. The fractures themselves appear to be cutting across a bulging dome.

My first reaction was to wonder where the heck this crater was on Mars, how big was it, and how dominate were the fractures within its floor. The image itself does not answer any of these questions. The fractures could be filling the floor, or not, and the crater could be small or big. Moreover, its location might help explain the cause of the fractures.

To understand any of the images from MRO it is always important to zoom out to get some context.
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The vast northern plains of Mars

The vast northern plains of Mars

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

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

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

Overview image

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

Detail area of overview map

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

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


The steep slumping wall of a Martian volcano caldera

Caldera wall

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

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

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

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

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


Land of swiss cheese and spiders

Swiss cheese on Martian south polar cap

Time for some cool images! In one of their periodic captioned releases of an interesting high resolution image, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team this week released a picture of the strange “swiss cheese” terrain found throughout the Martian southern polar cap. (I have already highlighted in an early post the spiders that form in the south pole as the carbon dioxide evaporates.) The image to the right is a cropped section of that image, which you can see in its entirety if you click on it.

The South Polar residual cap is composed of carbon dioxide ice that persists through each Martian summer. However, it is constantly changing shape.

The slopes get more direct illumination at this polar location, so they warm up and sublimate, going directly from a solid state to a gaseous state. The gas then re-condenses as frost over flat areas, building new layers as the older layers are destroyed.

The captioned link above also included a link to a gif animation showing how this terrain has changed since 2009. The holes have become bigger, their cliffs retreating with time.

The section I highlight above not only shows the retreating swiss cheese dry ice, you can also see ghosts of several buried craters slowly becoming visible as the dry ice evaporates away.

This is only one of many images taken of the south pole by MRO. In the October archive release, I found almost two dozen, and that’s only the images taken during August of this summer. MRO takes images of the south pole regularly to track its changes, though I suspect it took more this summer because the global dust storm blocked imagery in the middle latitudes. Below and to the right is just one of these images, a particularly good illustration of the swiss cheese formation.
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A vent on Mars?

A vent on Mars?

Cool image time! In their exploration of the surface of Mars using Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), scientists often image geological features that strongly resemble Earth features. Sometimes, if real, the resemblances are significant, as they indicate important geological activity on Mars that can tell us a lot about the conditions and environment there.

The image on the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to post here, is a good example of this. It was taken by MRO on June 14, 2018, just before the global dust storm obscured the planet’s middle latitudes for most of the summer, and was part of the monthly release of new images from the spacecraft. (If you click on the image you can see the full resolution picture.) The release website, which includes no caption, describes this feature as an “apparent vent,” a determination that certainly seems reasonable. The shadowed dark features suggest an abrupt oblong pit near the edge of a cliff, formed in the center of a collapsed sink. The tear-drop shape of the collapse sink and surrounding darkened areas also suggests that something is venting from it and then blowing away to the east and south, forming the darker stained ground. Some of the dark features to the southeast might also be smaller vents, releasing their own materials into the atmosphere.

The location also reinforces this suggestion, located on the southeast lava slopes of one of Mars’ larger volcanoes, Elysium Mons. This is also a region, dubbed Athabasca Valles, that some planetary scientists believe is one of the youngest lava flows on Mars.

Finally, it appears that the pit here has darkened considerably recently. MRO has taken images of this pit twice previously, in 2008 and 2010, and in both images the pit is much lighter in color, with its sandy dune-covered floor much easier to see. In the new image the floor is now very dark. This might be caused by shadows and the angle of the Sun, but I don’t believe so. It is also clear when comparing all three images that the surrounding area, including the flow to the southeast, has also darkened with time.

All this data suggests that the pit is venting something into the air, and it is settling on the ground to the southeast, blown there by the prevailing winds. Nor is this pit the only such feature in this region. Other images by MRO show a lot of similar dark splotches.

The problem is that this feature is not on Earth but on Mars. Determining what is being vented, and why, is therefore made more difficult. Based on Earth data you would assume this is some form of volcanic vent, releasing gases from below the surface. On Mars that assumption might not hold. We might instead be seeing the venting of any number of possible materials, such as underground water-ice, carrying with it other underground materials and thus darkening the surface.

We also can’t assume that the venting is occurring because of volcanic processes. On Mars the evidence so far gathered suggests that active volcanic activity ceased a very long time ago, even for this very young lava region. The venting is likely caused by something else, a fact that in itself is probably the most significant take-away from these images.

Something appears to be causing an active vent on the surface of Mars. Finding out the root cause of that venting is probably one of the more interesting questions facing researchers who study the Martian surface.


Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spots Opportunity through dust

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken a picture through the fading Martian dust storm that spots Opportunity about halfway down Perseverance Valley in the rim of Endeavour Crater.

Engineers have been increasing the number of times per day they are attempting to communicate with the rover, so far all to no avail. The picture thus only really tells us that the storm is lifting and that MRO’s high resolution camera is operating normally after three months of limited picture taking because of the dust storm.


A Martian shoreline?

Collapsing cliff in Tempe Fossae

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, was part of the August 31 image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). (Click on the image to see the full image.) It shows a slowly separating cliff feature in a region dubbed Tempe Fossae

As part of that monthly mass release, no caption was provided for this image. However, we can gain some understanding by looking at the larger context.

Tempe Fossae is located at the margins between the low flat northern plains and the high southern highlands. The location is also part of the vast drainage region to the east of Mars’ gigantic volcanoes. This is obvious from the overview image below and on the right. The location of this image is indicated by the white cross.

Mars overview

In this area of that drainage the canyons appear to follow southwest to northeast trending fault lines. Tempe Fossae is one of the smaller of these canyon complexes. All however appear to drain out into the northern plains.

Most of the MRO images of features in this area focus on the canyon cliffs. This image however focused on this one isolated small cliff in the middle of the canyon. To my eye it appears that these features document the slow drying of that vast intermittent ocean in Mars’s northern plains. The cliff is actually two steps, with the higher one appearing to mark an older shoreline. The lower cliff is abutted by a low flat area where it appears as if there had once been ponded water, now dried.

close-up of cracked area

The cracks in the cliff itself suggest it is slowly breaking apart and falling down towards that low flat area. In fact, the entire feature reminds me of the sand cliffs that are sometimes found along shorelines. The sand is not very strong structurally, and with time sections will separate and then fall down. The image to the right zooms in on this cracked region. The presence of sand dunes reinforces my impression.

I imagine that as the water drained down from the glaciers on the sides of the volcanoes and filled that intermittent sea, the shoreline regions would have had the most water. At Tempe Fossae the canyons might have been partly filled. As the water level drained out and lowered, first the upper cliff edge was exposed, then the lower. The draining water probably helped created these cracks as it flowed down through them.

Finally, the last remaining pits of water ponded at the base of the cliff, eventually drying out. With time, the weakly structured sand cliffs, already carved partly by the flowing water, began to slump apart and fall downward, producing the cracks we now see. I expect that some time in the near future, on geological time scales, there will be a landslide and the outer section will collapse downward.


Baby volcanoes on Mars

Pitted cones on Mars

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

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

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

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

Overview map

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

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

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


The search for Mars Polar Lander

A small section where Polar Lander might have crashed

In December 1999 the U.S. lander Mars Polar Lander was to set down near the southern polar cap of Mars. After an almost routine eleven month journey to Mars, all efforts to contact the spacecraft after its landing failed. A NASA review eventually concluded that the spacecraft had prematurely shut down its landing engines while the spacecraft was still far above the surface, and had therefore crashed to the ground.

Since then there have been extensive efforts to locate the lander’s remains on the surface, all to no avail. Though Mars Global Surveyor, in orbit at the time, tried to find it, its resolution was not sufficient. In recent years Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has taken several dozen high resolution images of the estimated landing area, two of the most recent were included in the August 2018 image release. The image on the right is a cropped section of one of those images, illustrating the difficulty of the search. (If you click on the image you can explore the full version.) The other image is quite similar.

As the southern polar cap shrinks and grows seasonally, it produces endless numbers of black spots from the release of underground dust as the carbon dioxide dry ice sublimates into gas. Moreover, the growth and retreat of the dry ice cap changes the landscape, periodically covering any remains of the rover as well as quickly removing many of the ground disturbances that the crash might have caused. In the almost two decades since the lander’s crash landing, about ten Martian years have passed, meaning that cap has melted and frozen ten times over this region in that time.

Images taken by MRO of Mars Polar Lander landing area

The image on the right shows the footprint of all the images that MRO has so far taken of the Mars Polar Lander landing area. If you are ambitious and want to get your name in the news, all you have to do is spend some time combing through those images and find the lander there. Every one of these images is available for public download at full resolution. Go to HiRise image archive, hover your mouse over latitude 77 degrees south, longitude 166 degrees east, and click several times to zoom in. You then change the selector icon at the top from “+” to “the arrow”. When next you click on any portion of that footprint it will show you a bunch of the images taken, all of which you can now download and inspect.

If you are successful and find the lander, please let me know. It would be nice to make that announcement here on Behind the Black.


Inexplicable high latitude Martian terrain

Inexplicable high southern latitude Martian terrain

Strange image time! The image on the right, reduced in resolution to post here, comes from the August 1, 2018 image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). (If you click on the image you can see the full resolution version.) I have not cropped this image at all, so that you can see all of its swirling terrain.

This image did not come with a caption. The image site merely describes this terrain as having an “interesting morphology.” The location, in the very high southern latitudes (78 degrees south) just outside the southern rim of a very large crater, provides a slight explanation, as the growth and retreat of the Martian carbon dioxide polar caps is known to create very strange landforms. These swirling flows are obviously an example of one such landform.

The crater rim is just off of the top of the image and parallel with it. Therefore, the apparent erosional flows going around the hills and mesas are running parallel to the rim, not down from it. The black specks scattered about are probably points where dust was released as the carbon dioxide turned from ice to gas, a process that at the high latitudes on Mars often causes what planetary scientists call “spiders.”

I will not even try to make a guess at the process that formed what we see here. The image itself was taken on June 16, 2018 as part of a seasonal monitoring effort, which means scientists expect there to be changes occurring here from year to year as the polar cap shrinks and grown. An almost identical image had been taken two years ago, on December 18, 2016, and shows almost no black specks, probably because of the different time in the Martian year. A much closer comparison of both high resolution images would be necessary to tease out any more subtle changes.


A strange bulge on Mars

Pollack Crater

Cool image time! The image on the right is not the cool image, but a context image of 59-mile-wide Pollack Crater, located slightly south of the Martian equator in the planet’s southern cratered highlands. What makes this crater intriguing to planetary scientists, and has prompted them to take many images over the decades, is the bulge in the southwest part of the crater’s floor. You don’t normally see a rise off-center like this inside craters. If there were any peaks, you’d expect them to be in the center, formed during the impact, when the crater floor melts and acts more like water in a pond when you drop a pebble into it, forming ripples with an uplifting drop in the dead center.

It therefore isn’t surprising that planetary scientists have taken a lot of pictures of this bulge, going back to the Mariner 9 orbiter in 1972, which first discovered it. Scientists then dubbed it “White Rock” because in the first black & white images it looked much brighter than the surrounding terrain. Later color images revealed that it is actually somewhat reddish in color, not white. As noted at this Mars Global Surveyor webpage,
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Cryptic terrain in Martian high southern latitudes

Cryptic terrain in Reynolds Crater near Mars south pole

Cool image time! The image on the right is a small cropped section from a larger image taken of the floor of Reynolds Crater, near the margins of the Martian southern polar carbon dioxide icecap.

The image was part of the August 1, 2018 image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was taken on July 5, 2018. Because that was during the peak of now clearing global dust storm, a large majority of MRO’s images were obscured. Only images taken at high latitudes appeared clear and sharp.

The image link, which has no caption, calls this “cryptic terrain.” Since this is at the margin of the polar cap, the white areas are almost certainly still-frozen dry ice. The white strip down the center of the image appears to be a low drainage gully, made even more evident on the full image.

What are the dark spots however? These are probably related to the dark spiders that appear wherever the carbon dioxide starts to melt and evaporate into gas, releasing the darker dust from below to coat the surface. The dark spots in this image are probably that same darker dust, but why it is scattered about as spots and splotches is a mystery. It does appear that the dark areas more completely cover the higher terrain, but why and if so is definitely unclear.

Back in 1999 I attended a press conference just prior to the failure of Mars Polar Lander. One of the mission’s investigators explained that, based on the orbiter images available at the time, they expected the lander to see some very weird land forms once it reached the surface, shaped in ways that are not seen on Earth. Unfortunately, contact with the spacecraft was lost just before it entered the Martian atmosphere, and was never recovered.

This image however remains me of that scientist’s lost expectation. The seasonal growth and retreat of the Martian icecaps will likely create some strange geology, which is only hinted at in this particular MRO image.


Mars dust storm blocks Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images

In my normal routine to check out the periodic posting of new high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the August 1 update brought what at first was a disturbing surprise. If you go to the link you will see that a large majority of the images show nothing by a series of vertical lines, as if the high resolution camera on MRO has failed.

Yet, scattered among the images were perfectly sharp images. I started to look at these images to try to figure out the differences, and quickly found that the sharp images were always of features in high latitudes, while the blurred images were closer to the equator.

The August 1 image release covered the June/July time period, when the on-going Martian dust storm was at its height. The images illustrate also where the storm was most opaque, closer to the equator.

The next few updates, which occur every three weeks or so, should show increasing clarity as the storm subsides. And the storm is subsiding, according to the latest Opportunity update. The scientists have still not re-established contact with the rover, and do not expect to for at least a month or more, but they are finding that the atmospheric opacity at Endeavour Crater seems to be dropping.


Another skylight entrance pit found on Mars

Pit in Hephaestus Fossae

Cool image time! In my routine monthly review of the hundreds of new images released from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across another most intriguing geological feature, the image of which is posted to the right, after cropping.

As the scale shows, the pit is about 300 feet across. Calculating the pit’s depth would require someone with better math skills than I. The website provides information about the sun angle, which can be used to extrapolate the shadows and then roughly calculate the depth.

The most fascinating aspect of this pit is the impression of incredible thinness for the pit’s overhung edges. All of the pit’s edges appear significantly overhung, and the thickness of the overhang seems incredibly paper-thin. This thinness is likely only an illusion, though in Mars’s light gravity it is perfectly possible for the overhang to be far thinner and more extended than anything you would find on Earth.

The image itself is in color, though the only color visible is within the pit itself. In that blueness at the base it seems to me that there is a pile of dust/debris, but once again, that conclusion should not be taken very seriously.

If you take a look at the full image, what is impressive is the bland flatness of the surrounding terrain. There is no hint that there might be underground passages hidden here. While most of the scattered craters are probably impact craters, many (especially those with unsymmetrical shapes) could be collapse features indicating the presence of underground voids. None however is very deep. Nor is there any other pits visible.

Below is a global map of Mars with the location of this pit indicated by a black cross. It is just on the edge of the transition zone between the lower northern plains and the southern highlands, where the shoreline of an intermittent sea is thought by some scientists to have once existed. This is also an area where not a lot of high resolution images have been taken, mostly because of its apparent blandness as seen in previous imagery.

This image demonstrates however that Mars is going to have interesting geology everywhere, and that we won’t really know it well until we have explored it all.
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A dark dust avalanche on Mars

No dust avalanche

After dust avalanche

Cool image time! The two images to the right, both cropped to post here, were taken six years apart by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of the western lava slopes of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. They show the appearance of a dark dust avalanche during the interim. As noted by members of the MRO science team.

Dust avalanches create slope streaks that expose darker materials usually hidden below a lighter-toned layer. Cascading fine-grained material easily diverts around boulders or alters direction when encountering a change in slope. The dark steak … is approximately 1 kilometer in length that we didn’t see in a previous image. Past avalanche sites are still visible and fading slowly as dust settles out of the atmosphere and is deposited on the dark streaks over time.

We also see boulders and their shadows that are a meter or greater in size. Movement of any of these boulders down the slope could trigger future avalanches.

The appearance of these Martian dark streaks on slopes is actually not uncommon. As more pictures are taken of Mars scientists are beginning to accumulate a large number all across the Martian surface.

What I find fascinating is the wet look of these dark streaks. Below is a close-up of the new avalanche, near its head.
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Spiders on Mars!

spiders on Mars

Cool image time! Today’s release of new captioned images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) included a wonderful image of the melting carbon dioxide cap of Mars’s south pole. On the right is a cropped portion of the full image, showing what the MRO scientists nickname spiders, features that appear as the CO2 begins to turn into gas.

But these aren’t actual spiders. We call it “araneiform terrain,” to describe the spider-like radiating channels that form when carbon dioxide ice below the surface heats up and releases. This is an active seasonal process we don’t see on Earth. Like dry ice on Earth, the carbon dioxide ice on Mars sublimates as it warms (changes from solid to gas) and the gas becomes trapped below the surface.

Over time the trapped carbon dioxide gas builds in pressure and is eventually strong enough to break through the ice as a jet that erupts dust. The gas is released into the atmosphere and darker dust may be deposited around the vent or transported by winds to produce streaks. The loss of the sublimated carbon dioxide leaves behind these spider-like features etched into the surface.

The image above shows older spiders, formed during past seasonal events. If you click on the image you can see the full image, which shows darker spiders produced by this season’s cycle.


The mysterious chaos terrain of Mars

In one of my weekly posts last month (dated May 14th) delving into the May image release from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera, I featured an image of what planetary geologists have labeled chaos terrain, a hummocky chaotic terrain that has no real parallel on Earth but is found in many places on Mars.

This month’s image MRO release included two more fascinating images of this type of terrain. In addition, the Mars Odyssey team today also released its own image of chaos terrain, showing a small part of a region dubbed Margaritifer Chaos. Below, the Mars Odyssey image is on the right, with one of the MRO images to the left. Both have been cropped, with the MRO image also reduced in resolution. The full MRO image shows what the MRO science team labels “possibly early stage chaos” on the rim of a canyon dubbed Shalbatana Vallis.

young chaos in Shalbatana Vallis

Margaritifer Chaos

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