Tag Archives: Mars

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.

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Planetary rover update: January 22, 2019

Summary: Curiosity begins journey off of Vera Rubin Ridge. Opportunity’s silence is now more than seven months long, with new dust storms arriving. Yutu-2 begins roving the Moon’s far side.

Before providing today’s update, I have decided to provide links to all the updates that have taken place since I provided a full list in my February 8, 2018 update. As I noted then, this allows my new readers to catch up and have a better understanding of where each rover is, where each is heading, and what fascinating things they have seen in the past few years.

These updates began when I decided to figure out the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, which resulted in my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. Then, when Curiosity started to travel through the fascinating and rough Murray Buttes terrain in the summer of 2016, I stated to post regular updates. To understand the press releases from NASA on the rover’s discoveries it is really necessary to understand the larger picture, which is what these updates provide. Soon, I added Opportunity to the updates, with the larger context of its recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater explained in my May 15, 2017 rover update.

Now an update of what has happened since November!
» Read more

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UAE’s Mars mission on schedule for 2020 launch

The new colonial movement: According to one of the chief engineers for the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) unmanned mission to Mars, dubbed Hope, the spacecraft is on schedule for its 2020 launch by a Japanese rocket.

If all goes right, Hope will go into Martian orbit in 2021.

The quotes in the article from that chief engineer reveal somewhat the overall shallowness of UAE’s space effort at this point.

Omar Hussain, Lead Mission Design and Navigation Engineer for the Emirates Mars Mission, speaking at the Science Event 2019 held at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, said the team have had to overcome a number of challenges along the way.

“It is too early to talk about a specific date just yet but everything is on track and there have been no delays,” said the 29-year-old Emirati. “Speaking for myself, it has been challenging because I had to switch from planning for Earth-based projects to interplanetary missions.

“It took a lot of education to get to that point as I had never done a mission that goes beyond the Earth’s lower orbits. I had to study how I would get the spacecraft from Earth to Mars.”

The goal with their space program is to help diversify UAE’s economy. It might eventually do this, but for now, they I think are very dependent on the help they are getting from others. Japan is providing the rocket, and India the engineering expertise for the spacecraft.

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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.

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New local dust storm activity near silent Opportunity

The Opportunity science team reported today that they have noted an increase in local dust storm activity just south of the silent rover.

The storm is expected to increase in opacity (tau) at the rover site to greater than 1.5 over the next few days. No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018) during the historic global dust storm. Opportunity likely experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. Since the loss of signal, the team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver.

This activity, plus the fact that they have still not been able to re-establish contact with the rover during the recent dust devil season, when they had hoped a devil might clear the dust off the solar panels, bodes very bad for the rover. The Curiosity team is also seeing more dust activity, and notes that these dust storms will also act to reduce the number of dust devils.

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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.

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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.

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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.
» Read more

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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.

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Gale Crater dunes: dry and volcanic in origin

Using data from orbit and from the rover Curiosity, scientists have determined that the material in the dunes in Gale Crater that Curiosity has visited are very dry and volcanic in origin.

This dryness is in contrast with the underlying ground, which shows evidence of water. The data also suggests that the material either came from multiple volcanic sources producing different compositions, or some of the sand was somehow changed at a later time.

In other words, the sand in the dunes came from elsewhere.

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Dried mud cracks on Mars?

Mud cracks on Mars?

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

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

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

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

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InSight installs seismometer on Martian surface

InSight has successfully placed its first instrument, its seismometer, on Martian surface.

They aren’t yet ready to start gathering data, however.

In the coming days, the InSight team will work on leveling the seismometer, which is sitting on ground that is tilted 2 to 3 degrees. The first seismometer science data should begin to flow back to Earth after the seismometer is in the right position.

But engineers and scientists at JPL, the French national space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and other institutions affiliated with the SEIS team will need several additional weeks to make sure the returned data are as clear as possible. For one thing, they will check and possibly adjust the seismometer’s long, wire-lined tether to minimize noise that could travel along it to the seismometer. Then, in early January, engineers expect to command the robotic arm to place the Wind and Thermal Shield over the seismometer to stabilize the environment around the sensors.

They plan on deploying the heat probe (which will drill down about 16 feet) in January.

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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.
» Read more

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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.

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MRO photographs InSight on Mars

The high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has located and photographed InSight, its heat shield, and its parachute.

The pictures themselves are not very interesting. What is important however is for scientists to know exactly where InSight is located so they can better understand the data it sends back of Mars’ interior. They now have that information.

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Trace Gas Orbiter finds no methane on Mars

The uncertainty of science: Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has failed to detect any methane in Mars’ atmosphere, even though data from Mars Express in 2004 had said it should see some.

The Mars Express orbiter first detected hints of methane in the martian atmosphere in 2004. But some scientists said the orbiter’s instruments that found it—at a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb)—weren’t sensitive enough to produce reliable results. Ten years later, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected a methane spike of 7 ppb from its base in Gale crater, which lasted several months. Several years later, Curiosity’s scientists then discovered a minute seasonal cycle, with methane levels peaking at 0.7 ppb in the late northern summer.

To settle this mystery, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016, this year began to scan the atmosphere for methane. Two of the TGO’s spectrometers—a Belgian instrument called NOMAD and a Russian one called ACS—were designed to detect methane in such low concentrations that researchers were sure they would. Both instruments, which analyze horizontal slices of the martian atmosphere backlit by the sun, are working well, scientists on the team said today at a semiannual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. There’s still some noise to clean up, said Ann Carine Vandaele, NOMAD’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels, in her talk. “But we already know we can’t see any methane.”

The team’s initial results show no detection of methane down to a minute level of 50 parts per trillion, with their observations going down nearly all the way to the martian surface.

The data says that any methane seen on the surface (such as by Curiosity) must be coming from below, not from off world, which in itself is a surprise since the scientists expected some methane to be coming from interplanetary dust. TGO has found none..

There are a lot of uncertainties still, so stay tuned.

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InSight tests its robot arm

InSight has unfolded its robot arm and is beginning to use it to photograph the surrounding area to figure out where to place the spacecraft’s ground-sensing instruments.

With a reach of nearly 6 feet (2 meters), the arm will be used to pick up science instruments from the lander’s deck, gently setting them on the Martian surface at Elysium Planitia, the lava plain where InSight touched down on Nov. 26.

But first, the arm will use its Instrument Deployment Camera, located on its elbow, to take photos of the terrain in front of the lander. These images will help mission team members determine where to set InSight’s seismometer and heat flow probe – the only instruments ever to be robotically placed on the surface of another planet.

They are proceeding carefully, so actually deployment might not occur for several months, just make everything goes well.

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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..
» Read more

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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.

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More ice cliffs found on Mars!

Another ice cliff

In my review of the November image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I am, as a cave explorer and cartographer, naturally attracted to any image with “pit” in the title. The image to the right, cropped, rotated and reduced to post here, was released with the title “Pit in Mid-Latitude Mantle”. That immediately caught my eye, and in looking at it I was at first unimpressed. The three apparent collapses are interesting in that they all have south-facing sharp cliffs, but other than that I wasn’t sure why they were of interest.

Then I took at look at this image’s location. It is somewhat far south on Mars, at latitude -60 degrees, sitting south of Hellas Basin, the deepest basin on Mars. This location is in the same general area where scientists announced in January the discovery of eight cliffs with visible exposed ice layers. The white horizontal bar below Hellas Basin on the map below and to the right shows the region where seven of those ice cliffs were located. To quote the January press release:

The location of known ice scarps on Mars

These eight scarps, with slopes as steep as 55 degrees, reveal new information about the internal layered structure of previously detected underground ice sheets in Mars’ middle latitudes.

The ice was likely deposited as snow long ago. The deposits are exposed in cross section as relatively pure water ice, capped by a layer one to two yards (or meters) thick of ice-cemented rock and dust. They hold clues about Mars’ climate history. They also may make frozen water more accessible than previously thought to future robotic or human exploration missions.

Researchers who located and studied the scarp sites with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on MRO reported the findings today in the journal Science. The sites are in both northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at latitudes from about 55 to 58 degrees, equivalent on Earth to Scotland or the tip of South America. “There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars,” said the study’s lead author, Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “What we’ve seen here are cross-sections through the ice that give us a 3-D view with more detail than ever before.”

In an email correspondence today with Dr. Dundas, he confirmed that the image to the right was of ice cliffs not included in the January paper. The image was a follow-up of an earlier MRO image and was taken to confirm the ice cliff’s existence.

What I noticed in reviewing the January paper was that these three new ice scarps were actually outside the white bar on the map above, located at -60.7 degrees latitude, 83.5 degrees longitude.
» Read more

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Analysis of InSight’s landing site

Link here. It appears they landed within a small crater filled with sand.

InSight landed in what’s called a hollow, a crater that has been filled in with soil and leveled flat. In images taken from the elbow of the lander’s stowed robotic arm, the edge of the crater is visible. Once the team determines the diameter of the crater—it could be meters, maybe tens of meters—researchers can infer its depth and the amount of sand blown into it. Either way, this bodes well for the heat probe instrument, called HP3, which should penetrate the material with ease. “This is about as good news for HP3 as you could possibly hope,” he says.

Landing in the hollow was fortunate for another reason. InSight didn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye of its target landing zone, and ended up in terrain that, overall, is rockier than desired. But the hollow is mostly devoid of rocks. One, about 20 centimeters across, sits close to the lander’s feet, whereas three smaller ones lie farther away—but none poses a threat to placing the instruments. The hollow is flat and lacks sand dunes, and small pebbles indicate a surface dense enough to support the weight of the instruments. “We won’t have any trouble whatsoever,” Golombek says.

They still need to pin down exactly where the lander is, on the surface. They know, within a few kilometers, but it will take more work to narrow that down to a precise location.

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The lava tubes and canyons of Cerberus Fossae

Cerberus Fossae rock falls

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

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

Elysium Mons and Cereberus Fossae

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

Mars as seen by MarCo-B

The two MarCO cubesats that successfully relayed data from InSight to Earth during its landing yesterday continue to function, with one even sending back images. The photo on the right, cropped and reduced slightly to post here, was taken by MarCo-B.

Neither of the MarCO CubeSats carry science instruments, but that didn’t stop the team from testing whether future CubeSats could perform useful science at Mars. As MarCO-A flew by, it conducted some impromptu radio science, transmitting signals through the edge of Mars’ atmosphere. Interference from the Martian atmosphere changes the signal when received on Earth, allowing scientists to determine how much atmosphere is present and, to some degree, what it’s made of.

“CubeSats have incredible potential to carry cameras and science instruments out to deep space,” said John Baker, JPL’s program manager for small spacecraft. “They’ll never replace the more capable spacecraft NASA is best known for developing. But they’re low-cost ride-alongs that can allow us to explore in new ways.”

As a bonus, some consumer-grade cameras aboard MarCO provided “drive-by” images as the CubeSats sailed past Mars. MarCO-B was programmed to turn so that it could image the planet in a sequence of shots as it approached Mars (before launch, MarCO-A’s cameras were found to be either non-functioning or too blurry to use).

This engineering test proves that we don’t need to build billion dollar spacecraft every time we wish to send an unmanned scouting ship to another world. Cubesats will soon do the job quite well, and for a tenth the cost.

And there will be a lot of money to be made. Governments and private entities of all types will be eager to buy the services of the garage-built planetary cubesats that private companies are going to soon be building, in large numbers.

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InSight’s solar panels have opened

InSight engineers have now reported that solar panels have opened and are functioning properly.

NASA’s InSight has sent signals to Earth indicating that its solar panels are open and collecting sunlight on the Martian surface. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed the signals, which were received on Earth at about 5:30 p.m. PST (8:30 p.m. EST). Solar array deployment ensures the spacecraft can recharge its batteries each day. Odyssey also relayed a pair of images showing InSight’s landing site.

“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

This was the last major event in the landing sequence, and with it they can now shift to the slow deployment of instruments over the next few weeks. Results from this spacecraft will not be sudden or spectacular. It is going to take time to get the spectrometer placed and than time to gather quake data.

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InSight has successfully landed

NASA engineers have received confirmation that InSight has successfully touched down on the Martian surface.

Don’t count your chickens yet. They need to wait about five hours for the dust, kicked up by landing, to settle before they try opening the solar panels. That must succeed, or the mission will fail, having no source of power.

The landing information was relayed through the two MARCO cubesats flying past Mars, a landmark engineering achievement that in a sense is more significant than the landing itself. These cubesats have demonstrated that smallsats can do complex interplanetary tasks. Expect a revolution in the planetary space exploration world.

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Present and future landing sites on Mars

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

Landing sites on Mars

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

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

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

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

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India wants international instruments for its Venus mission

The new colonial movement: India has requested science instruments proposals from the international community for its planned Venus orbiter, set to launch in 2023.

ISRO has already selected 12 instruments, proposed by Indian scientists, including cameras and chemical analyzers to study the atmosphere. Now, it’s hoping other scientists will join. “Planetary exploration should be all about global partnerships,” says Kailasavadivoo Sivan, a rocket scientist and ISRO’s chair. (The deadline for submitting proposals is 20 December.)

For me, the big news with this article is that it is the very first I have seen that actually spells out Sivan’s first name. Since he became head of ISRO in January 2018, he has only been listed as “K. Sivan” in every single article, even those describing his background when he was appointed. Now that I have learned what a tongue-twister that first name is, I can understand why they abbreviate it.

On a more serious note, this article indicates the growing maturity of India’s space effort. They not only are planning a mission to Venus, they will fly missions to the Moon in January and Mars in 2022, and intend to launch their first manned mission in that same time period.

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The soft landslides of Mars

A soft avalanche on Mars

Context image of landslide

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

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

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

To the right is an image showing the wider context of the above image, taken by Mars Odyssey and cropped and annotated by me to post here. The white box shows the entire area photographed by the full resolution image of the landslide, with the tongue of the landslide at the bottom of the box. If you look at the floor of this crater, you can see what looks like the ghost of a past smaller impact, seemingly buried in either a field of lava or soft dusty regolith. The smoothness of the crater floor also suggests a material softness, allowing it to settle into a pondlike featureless flat plain.
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NASA picks Mars 2020 landing site: Jezero Crater

Jezero Crater

NASA has picked Jezero Crater has the landing site for its as yet unnamed 2020 Mars rover.

Jezero Crater is located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Western Isidis presents some of the oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer. Mission scientists believe the 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) crater, once home to an ancient river delta, could have collected and preserved ancient organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago.

Jezero Crater’s ancient lake-delta system offers many promising sampling targets of at least five different kinds of rock, including clays and carbonates that have high potential to preserve signatures of past life. In addition, the material carried into the delta from a large watershed may contain a wide variety of minerals from inside and outside the crater.

The geologic diversity that makes Jezero so appealing to Mars 2020 scientists also makes it a challenge for the team’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) engineers. Along with the massive nearby river delta and small crater impacts, the site contains numerous boulders and rocks to the east, cliffs to the west, and depressions filled with aeolian bedforms (wind-derived ripples in sand that could trap a rover) in several locations.

The red dot on the map of Mars below shows this location. The blue dot is Gale Crater where Curiosity landed. The purple dot is the landing site for the European ExoMars rover. The yellow dot is where Opportunity has been roving, and the black dot is Spirit’s location.
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Sunset/sunrise on Mars

The sun on Mars's horizon

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced to post here, was taken by Curiosity during a photo campaign this week to monitor Mars’s atmosphere. It looks out to the horizon at the Sun. I think the view is eastward, at Mount Sharp, as the Sun rises, but I am not sure. It might be looking west across the crater rim at sunset.

If you click on the image you can see it at full resolution. The haziness in the atmosphere might be left over from this summer’s global dust storm, but probably not, as I have read numerous reports in connection with Opportunity saying the storm is completely over and the atmosphere has now cleared. More likely it is from the windy conditions that are simply present these days at Gale Crater.

Regardless, it is quite cool because it illustrates how far we have come since the first planetary missions half a century ago. We can now routinely watch a sunset on Mars.

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