Tag Archives: Mars

Martian pimples

Pimples on Mars!
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Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is one of those terrain sample images the science team of the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) takes periodically when they have a gap in their observation schedule with no specific requests for images of the terrain below. Still, they need to use the camera regularly to keep its temperature maintained, so they then take a somewhat random picture over that terrain, based partly on information from lower resolution images but without a strong sense of what they will find.

In this case, they found what I dub pimples, raised mounds with small holes at their peaks. The image, taken on November 30, 2019, is located is in the northern lowlands, at a latitude (45 degrees) where subsurface ice is possible. Thus, we could be looking at water ice volcanoes.

Very few high resolution images have been taken of this area, with no others close by. Thus, the overall context of these mounds is hard to gauge. They could be widespread, or very localized.

The unknowns here and general lack of research suggests this location and these mounds are ripe research for some postdoc student interested in planetary geology.

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Nine finalists in Mars 2020 rover naming contest

The nine finalists in the Mars 2020 rover naming contest have been chosen, out of 28,000 entries from schools across the United States.

The nine candidate names were made possible by the “Name the Rover” essay contest, which invited students in kindergarten through 12th grade from across the United States to come up with a fitting name for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and write a short essay about it.

More than 28,000 essays were submitted after the contest began on Aug. 28 last year. A diverse panel of nearly 4,700 judge volunteers, composed of educators, professionals and space enthusiasts from all around the country, narrowed the pool down to 155 deserving semifinalists from every state and territory in the country.

The public now gets to vote for their favorite, the choices of which are: Endurance, Tenacity, Promise, Perseverance, Vision, Clarity, Ingenuity, Fortitude, Courage. For the next week you can vote here. NASA will then take the poll results into consideration before making its final choice.

My personal favorite is Endurance. Vote for your own.

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Undulations on Mars

Undulations in Dokka Crater
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Time for a cool image that makes no sense. The photo on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on November 15, 2019 of the floor of a crater, dubbed Dokka Crater, located in the high latitudes of the Martian northern lowlands. Uncaptioned but labeled “Undulations on Dokka Crater Ice Dome,” it shows a region of weird complex wave features, reminiscent of another weird Martian geological feature called brain terrain.

The problem is that brain terrain is generally found in the mid-latitudes, not the high latitudes. Both this feature and brain terrain however appear to associated with ice. In this case, these undulations are occurring on the ice dome that apparently sits inside Dokka crater, which is also likely to be related to the islands of ice found in many high latitude craters on Mars in the southern hemisphere..

In the case of the southern hemisphere ice-filled craters, scientists have found evidence suggesting that global wind patterns might affect their shape and placement within the craters. One wonders if this same factor is a part cause for these undulations in this northern hemisphere crater.

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Six Martian summers at a polar impact crater

Crater on Martian north polar ice cap
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Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) last week released a very neat short movie compiled from images taken of an impact crater located on top of the northern polar ice cap of Mars. As noted by planetary scientist Alfred McEwen of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory in Arizona in the image caption,

Shown here is an impact crater on the north polar ice cap, which contains an icy deposit on the crater floor. These inter-crater ice deposits shrink and expand or change shape or surface texture from year to year,

The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is the most recent of these six images. The crater, which is about 200 feet in diameter, is the black speck in the center. The white streaks to the south of the crater, similar on all six photos, indicate that the prevailing winds come from the pole.

The animation zooms in on the crater so that you can see the details on its crater floor. And though the animation is fun, below the fold is a collage of all six photos, which I think makes it easier to see how the inter-crater ice deposits changed from summer to summer.
» Read more

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Tadpole on Mars

Tadpole on Mars
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Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019, and shows a crater on the northern fringe of Arabia Terra, one of the largest transitional regions between the Martian northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It shows a crater with an inlet canyon that makes the entire crater resemble a wiggling tadpole.

This is certainly not first tadpole-resembling crater found on Mars. See for example this press release from February 2018, showing a tadpole crater with the tail being an outlet channel. In today’s image however the channel feeds the crater.

In fact, take a look at the full image. This crater apparently occurred right at the edge of a large mesa cliff, with this impact cutting into the cliff near its bottom. The canyon might have actually existed before the impact, with the crater merely obliterating the canyon’s outlet.

If you look along that escarpment to the east you can see similar southwest-to-northeast flows. One is a canyon flowing downhill through the escarpment, probably resembling what the first canyon might have once looked like before the impact. To the east of this is another tadpole crater. This second tadpole impact however took place on top of the mesa, so the channel flows out from the crater and then down off the mesa, the reverse of the tadpole crater above.

These flow features are consistent with the nature of this transitional zone, a region with many features suggesting it was once the shoreline of an intermittent ocean. That ocean, if it had existed, is long gone, though scattered across the Martian surface are geological ghost features like these that speak of its past existence.

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Martian dry ice frost on glacial remains?

Frost on ridgelines and inside crater
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Close-up of frost

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 30, 2019. Located just east of Hellas Basin in southern mid-latitudes, the color strip shows dry ice frost both in the crater as well as on the ridgelines to the north. As noted in the caption, written by Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

When we acquired this image, it was [winter in the southern hemisphere] on Mars, but signs of spring are already starting to appear at latitudes not far from the equator. This image of Penticton Crater, taken at latitude 38 degrees south, shows streamers of seasonal carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) only remaining in places in the terrain that are still partially in the shade.

The turquoise-colored frost (enhanced color) is protected from the sun in shadowed dips in the ground while the sunlit surface nearby is already frost-free.

Note for example how the frost disappears in the southern half of the crater floor, the part exposed to sunlight.

What immediately struck me however were the underlying features. The entire northeast quadrant of the crater’s rim appears to have been breached by some sort of catastrophic flow, as if there had been a glacial lake inside the crater that at some point smashed through suddenly, wiping that part of the rim out as it ripped its way through.

To the right is a full resolution inset, indicated by the white box above, of the dry ice frost on the outside of the crater. I find myself however drawn more to the underlying features, which once again have a chaotic aspect suggesting a sudden violent event, coming from the south and moving north.

I have no idea if my visceral conclusions here have any validity. At this latitude, 38 degrees, scientists have found a lot of buried inactive glaciers of ice, so I could be right. Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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Gully on Mars

Gully in crater on Mars
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Cool image time! If we were told that the photo on the right was taken by an airplane over some southwest desert gully, no one should be surprised if we were to accept that description entirely. The gully sure looks like a lot of drainages one can routinely see when flying over the American southwest, dry, treeless, but showing the typical dendritic pattern seen for most desert water drainages.

Of course my readers all know that this is not in the American southwest, but on Mars, in a crater located in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowland plains. The image, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on October 12, 2019.

It appears that this particular gully has been subject to repeated monitoring, since November 2015. A rough and very quick comparison of the earlier image with today’s image does not show any obvious change. This does not mean there hasn’t been any evolution, as my look was cursory, and I could easily be missing changes. Seasonal variations might also be occurring that I could be missing.

The reasons for the monitoring are of course obvious. This gully strongly suggests the flow of liquid downhill. Is that occurring today, or are we seeing the evidence of a past flow from long ago? Only some long term monitoring can tell.

There is also the possibility that we are looking at a buried glacier. The crater is located at 42 degrees north latitude, well within that mid-latitude band where scientists have located many buried Martian glaciers. If so, then the monitoring is to see if that glacier is active in any way.

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Curiosity climbs a hill

Overview map of Curiosity's journey through sol 2643

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

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

Since my last Curiosity update on November 6, 2019, the science team has sent the rover climbing up what they call Western Butte, the butte directly to the west of Central Butte and part of the slope/escarpment that separates the clay unit from the Greenheugh Piedmont and the sulfate unit above that.

The overview map to the right gives a sense of the journey. The thick yellow line indicates its route since it climbed up from the Murray Formation onto Vera Rubin Ridge in 2017. The thick red line indicates their planned route, which they have only vaguely been following since their arrival in the clay unit.

Below the fold are two panoramas that I created from a sequence of images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera from the high point on Western Butte, the first looking north across the crater floor to the Gale Crater rim approximately 30 miles away and indicated by the thin yellow lines on the overview map. The second looks south, up hill towards Mount Sharp, and is indicate by the thin red lines.
» Read more

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Pedestal craters in the Martian northern lowlands?

Pedestal craters on Mars?
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows a cluster of really strange mesas, craters, and pits, located in Utopia Planitia, the largest and deepest plain of Mars’ northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

The image was taken on October 26, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as part of its regular image-taking program. In this case it was dubbed a “terrain sample” image, meaning that it was not specifically requested by any researcher, but was taken because they need to use the camera regularly to maintain its temperature, and thus sometime produce images over previously untouched areas, not knowing what they will find, as part of that maintenance schedule.

In this case the terrain sampled is especially intriguing. Are the upraised depressions what are called pedestal craters, created when the impact landed on what was once an icy plain, which subsequently sublimated away to leave the crater sitting high above the surrounding flats? Maybe, but this location is at 23 degrees north latitude, and research has generally found these pedestal craters at latitudes higher than 30 degrees.

Moreover, that many of these upraised depressions are not circular suggests that their formation was not impact related.

Other mysteries: Why are all the ridgelines bright? What caused the parallel white streaks to the east and west of some mesas? And if these are impact craters, why are some distorted?

If this region was once the seabed of an intermittent ocean, this fact might explain the features. Then again, it is more likely that this lowland area was once covered in ice in the far past, when the planet’s tilt was greater and the lower latitudes were actually colder than the polar regions, and thus allowed ice to build up in those lower latitudes. We might therefore be seeing the end result of an erosion/sublimation process as that ice disappeared when Mars’ inclination shifted.

Lots of questions, and no answers.

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Darkened craters on Mars

Darkened craters on Elysium Planitia
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It’s time for the first cool image of 2020! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 10, 2019. It shows a handful of darkened craters on the vast volcanic Elysium Planitia plain between the giant volcanoes Olympus Mons to the east and Elysium Mons to the north.

My first thought was that these dark craters were recent crater impacts, possibly a set of secondary impacts from a larger nearby impact. However, in looking at the archive of MRO’s high resolution camera at this location (Latitude 5.925° norther; Longitude 164.965°) I found that almost no high resolution images have been taken in this region, as shown by the overview map below to the right.
» Read more

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ExoMars2020 passes new parachute tests

Revisions to Europe’s ExoMars2020 parachutes have successfully passed tests at JPL in California.

Working with Nasa, ESA made modifications to the way the parachutes are released from the bag, which avoids creating so much friction. Using a special rig at JPL, the parachutes have now been tested up to their expected extraction speed of just over 200km/h with no sign of damage. Further confirmatory tests will now take place.

Time remains very short however. The launch window for ExoMars2020 is this coming summer.

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Giant scallops on Mars

Scallops on Mars
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It’s a slow news week, with the too much partying only real space news today the expected third launch of China’s Long March 5 rocket (supposedly scheduled for this morning but so far no word). (To my gentle reader: For some reason I have been losing a day during this whole week, always thinking that Christmas was on Thursday and that today was Friday. Thus my error in thinking the Long March 5 flight was today. It is tomorrow morning. Forgive me for my absent-mindedness.) So let’s look at a cool image!

The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken my the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 8, 2019. Entitled “Scalloped Depressions in Utopia Planitia,” it shows a strangely eroded surface in the northern lowlands of Mars, where an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

The location of these scallops is shown to the right.

Location of scallops in Utopia Planitia

I have taken the same overview map used from two recent cool image posts, showing how these scallops relate in location to the strange crater in Utopia Planitia as well as the glacial-surrounded mesa in Protonilus Mensae.

In caves, scallops like this form from water or wind flow, but when they do, they are all oriented the same way. Here the scallops are at different orientations, terracing down from the center of the image. In this case it appears that scientists believe [pdf] the formation process is related to the sublimation of underground ice at this location.

According to [one hypothesis] scallop formation should be ongoing at the present time. Sublimation of interstitial ice could induce a collapse of material, initially as a small pit, then growing southward because of greater solar heating on the southern side. Nearby scallops would coalesce together as can be seen to have occurred.

What is most cool is that the geologists think the process that forms these scallops is related to the same processes that cause the formation of the swiss cheese landforms in the south polar regions.

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Crater in the Martian northern lowlands

Crater in Utopia Planitia
Click for original full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 26, 2019. It shows a crater in the western edge of Utopia Planitia, the largest and deepest region of the Martian northern lowlands where it is theorized that an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

My first uneducated guess at looking at this image is that the impact occurred in some sort of wet slushy mud or ice, which then melted and filled the crater interior, ponding in the crater’s center as it froze.

A more educated guess, based on what I have learned in the past year, is not much different. The crater is located at 40 degrees north latitude and therefore sits in the middle of the mid-latitude band where scientists think there are a lot of buried inactive glaciers.

Overview map

The map to the right, revised from my December 20, 2019 post about glaciers flowing off the slopes of a mid-latitude mesa, illustrates this even more clearly.

This crater, indicated by the white cross, sits at approximately the same latitude as that mesa and its glaciers in Protonilus Mensae. It also sits at in an area where accumulated data from several spacecraft have mapped a lot of water ice, close to the surface.

Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the impact that made this crater pushed into that ice-table, melting the water which subsequently froze and then subsided downward into the ground to form the crater’s central ponded features.

Or to put it as I did initially, the impact smashed into some wet slushy mud/ice, melting it so that it filled the crater interior to then freeze as we see it.

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A deep dive into Valles Marineris

Dunes on the floor of Valles Marineris
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The vastness of Mars is sometimes hard to fathom. While the planet is much smaller than Earth, its entire global surface is approximately the same as the Earth’s land area. This is a lot of territory. It took humanity many tens of thousands of centuries to expand outward to settle all of it. It took even longer before humanity was successfully able to map all of the Earth so that its entire surface was known to all humans, a task that was only completed a handful of centuries ago.

While we now have the technology to quickly map the entire globe of a planet like Mars, the devil is always in the details. At this time the resolution of our global maps give us only a glimpse of the Martian surface.

The image to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, is a good example. Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 30, 2019, it shows a set of large dunes on the northern floor of a side canyon on Mars that is part of Coprates Chasma, a canyon that forms only a small part of the vast Valles Marineris canyon system east of the giant volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge.

The sand of these dunes is mostly volcanic material, dark basalt that was deposited as lava from those giant volcanoes, then later ground down in landslides and erosion to be recycled as sand that formed dunes trapped within the canyon bottom. The dunes themselves are slowly moving eastward, driven mostly by the predominate west-to-east winds that blow down this side canyon of Coprates Chasma. The motion is very slow, so slow that even though the image title is “Coprates Chasma Dune Changes”, I was unable to spot any changes when I compared this 2019 image with a photo taken in June 2019.

To find out what had changed, I contacted Matt Chojnacki of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who has been studying the nature of the sand dunes in Valles Marineris. After making a quick preliminary blink test using more sophisticate tools than I have available, he found “minor advancements. The rocks move a bit too in places.” Without a full analysis he also added, “I can tell some dune crests have moved to the east.”

The research by Chojnacki and others has found that the dunes within Valles Marineris are in many ways different than dunes found elsewhere in the mid-latitudes on Mars, suggesting that being trapped within this giant canyon has produced some specific regional features. They tend to be darker, the canyon contains several sand dune seas, called ergs (only seen elsewhere on Mars in the polar regions), and the dunes tend to be more hardened, so that they change relatively little when compared to similar dunes elsewhere on Mars.

These particular dunes in Coprates Chasma however are not hardened, since if so they would have been covered by the landslides and material that comes down from the canyon’s nearby northern slopes. Instead, they move, but appear to move far slower than similar dunes elsewhere on Mars.

To me, this image provides a good vehicle for getting a sense of the size of Valles Marineris. Coprates Chasma itself only one of about a dozen named sections of the entire Valles Marineris canyon system, and this particular image shows only the floor of a side canyon of Coprates. The map below gives an overview of the entire system.
» Read more

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Buried glaciers flowing off of Martian mesa

Glacial flow off of mesa
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Cool image time! Planetary geologists now think that the mid-latitudes of Mars contain many buried and inactive glaciers, formed several million years ago when the planet’s inclination was more than 50 degrees [pdf], rather than the 25 degrees it is now. At that time the mid-latitudes were actually colder than the poles, and water would sublimate from the poles to the colder mid-latitudes to pile up as snow and glaciers.

With today’s 25 degree inclination those mid-latitude glaciers are inactive, and have been so for several million years. It might even be that Mars’ water is beginning a shift back to the poles, but this is uncertain. If anything the planet is presently in a balance, and won’t start transferring water back to the poles until its inclination drops closer to zero.

The image to the right, taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on September 23, 2019, is of one of those glacial flows, coming off a mesa in a region called Protonilus Mensae, located in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowland plains where an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

Much of the geology of Protonilus Mensae is chaos terrain, places where the surface has eroded along angled fissures to form many mesas. The overview map below focuses in on the particular mesa where this flow is located. The red boxes indicate all the MRO images taken of this mesa, with the image above indicated by the black dot.
» Read more

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Megadunes in the giant canyon of Mars’ north polar icecap

Martian megadunes at the beginning of summer
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on September 15, 2019, right at the beginning of summer at the north polar icecap of Mars.

Without a larger context it is very difficult to figure out what this image shows. The image title, “Seasonal Changes of Chasma Boreale Megadunes,” gives us some basic clues. The streaks of black and dark grey are giant dunes, with this image showing their trailing edge. The darkest streaks are likely places where the thin winter mantle of dry ice has begun to sublimate away with the coming of spring, exposing the darker sand dunes below. The surrounding flat white areas are either the permanent water ice of the icecap or the surface of the lowland northern plains that surround that icecap.

The montage below shows a series of monitoring photos, beginning in 2018 during the last Martian summer and continuing through the start and middle of the spring and ending with the photo above. It shows the seasonal evolution of that upper carbon dioxide dry ice mantle, which reveals the darker dunes below as that dry ice mantle sublimates away.
» Read more

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Mars 2020 rover takes first and last test drive

Engineers on December 17 gave the Mars 2020 rover its first and last test drive before it is launched in July 2020.

In a 10-plus-hour marathon on Tuesday that demonstrated all the systems working in concert, the rover steered, turned and drove in 3-foot (1-meter) increments over small ramps covered with special static-control mats. Since these systems performed well under Earth’s gravity, engineers expect them to perform well under Mars’ gravity, which is only three-eighths as strong. The rover was also able to gather data with the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX).

I have embedded a short video showing a tiny part of that driving test below the fold. This is the last and only time we will ever be able to see the rover move. Once it is on Mars in Jezero Crater there will be no third party cameras to record its travels.
» Read more

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Martian impacts and streaks

Slope-streaked crater on Mars
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In the most recent image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), there was the cool image to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, of a crater that appeared to have hundreds and hundreds of slope streaks along its inner slopes.

Slope streaks are quite mysterious. They are found in the equatorial regions as dark (though sometimes light) streaks on steep slopes, appearing throughout the year and slowly fading over time. They also appear to be a geological phenomenon unique to Mars. Nothing on Earth or any other planet appears to correspond.

As such, their nature and cause remains unknown, though there are a bunch of theories, with the most popular being that these are a kind of dust avalanche. They are always found in connection with dust-covered terrain, but they also make no significant topological change to the surface, other than brightness.

The slope streaks in this crater are especially intriguing, because of the number of streaks. In digging further into the MRO archive I found a number of images of this crater and its surrounding terrain. It appears that sometime before 2012 there was a relatively recent impact close to the exterior of the eastern rim of this crater. The image below, taken in 2014 by MRO, shows this impact as the large dark splotch, with the new crater indicated by the arrow..
» Read more

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Maven makes first map of Mars’ high altitude winds

High altitude wind patterns on Mars

Scientists using the Martian orbiter Maven have produced the first global map of the high altitude wind circulation of Mars.

The measurements of winds that were recently mapped above Mars were found at an altitude range of about 140-240 kilometers (85-150 miles) above the planet’s surface.

The wind data has been gathered by the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). NGIMS’ original purpose was to determine the structure and composition of the Martian atmosphere by measuring in it the amounts of ions (electrically charged particles) and gases. However, although it was not originally designed to do so, in April 2016, the MAVEN team began using NGIMS to observe horizontal winds. Pausing normal collection of data, scientists on Earth programmed the instrument to nod back and forth so that it could detect the direction of winds along its track.

By combining data from many tracks as MAVEN orbits Mars, scientists slowly built up a map of wind behavior. This led to a startling discovery: the wind patterns actually correlated with the Martian topography below.

They have found that even at this high altitude the winds shift around the high volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge.

To my eye, the wind pattern seen in the image, taken from the video at the link, is remarkably similar to the global wind patterns found on Venus, forming a widening V-pattern moving from east to west. Though the two are vastly different, the similarity is quite intriguing.

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A new map of the water ice on Mars

Annotated water ice map of Mars
Click for full resolution image.

In a new science paper planetary scientists have produced a new global map of the water ice of Mars, based on data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey.

The image above is a lower resolution version of that map, annotated by me. The black areas are regions covered with a thicker layer of dust, so no good data was obtained. As you go from red to green to blue to purple the ice is thought to be closer to the surface, with the depth as small as an inch in the dark purple areas. The white rectangular represents the region best for human settlement, as it has ice near the surface and is at lower latitudes.

The red box indicates the location in Arcadia Planitia that is SpaceX’s candidate landing zone for Starship. Based on this new water ice map it appears that SpaceX has chosen very well. And the scientists who wrote this paper agree, as noted in the press release: “A large portion of a region called Arcadia Planitia is the most tempting target in the northern hemisphere.”

The map also confirms the existence of the 30 to 60 degree latitude bands where scientists believe a lot of buried glaciers exist. Both bands are both very evident in this new map.

To provide some further context, below is a global map of Mars labeled to show its major geographic features as well as the locations of all previous and upcoming landers/rovers, rearranged to match the water ice map above.
» Read more

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How the Mars2020 rover differs from Curiosity

A JPL press release today outlines some of the main engineering differences between Curiosity, the rover that has been exploring Gale Crater for the past fifteen years, and Mars2020, the unnamed rover that will be launched in July 2020 to explore Jezero Crater

One of the major the engineering improvements, based on what was learned with Curiosity, are the Mars2020 wheels:

Curiosity has prepared Mars 2020’s team for “off-roading” on the Red Planet. When holes began appearing in the veteran rover’s aluminum wheels, engineers realized that sharp rocks cemented on the Martian surface exert more pressure on the wheels than expected. Careful drive planning, along with a software upgrade, will keep them in shape for the rest of Curiosity’s journey up Mount Sharp.

While Mars 2020’s wheels are made from the same materials, they’re slightly bigger and narrower, with skins that are almost a millimeter thicker. Instead of Curiosity’s chevron-pattern treads, or grousers, Mars 2020 has straighter ones and twice as many per wheel (48 versus 24). Extensive testing in JPL’s Mars Yard has shown these treads better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks but work just as well on sand.

The computer and software has also been upgraded to speed daily operations. In addition, the new rover will have 23 cameras, six more than Curiosity, all of which will be capable of producing color images. And most important, the drill will be larger and will drill cores for obtaining samples that will be stored for possible return by a later mission.

The landing is set for February 18, 2021. If all goes well this rover will be exploring the Martian surface well in to the 2030s.

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The dark splotches on Mars: Magnets for dust devils

Olympus Maculae, land of dark splotches

One of the numerous geological mysteries that planetary scientists have discovered among the many high resolution images taken by the various Martian orbiters are a series of dark splotches, ranging in diameter from one to fifteen miles, running in an east-west line on the lower western slopes of the giant volcano Olympus Mons.

Scientists have dubbed this string of splotches Olympus Maculae and, because of their superficial resemblance to the islands of Hawaii, have labeled each splotch, or macula, after those islands, as shown in the overview map above, created by geologist Kirby Runyon of the Applied Physics Lab in Maryland as part of a presentation [pdf] given at a science conference in September 2019.

Prior to the 2018 global dust storm on Mars scientists were not quite sure what caused these dark patches. The data suggested the maculae were less dusty than the surrounding terrain, but why this was so was not clear.

The advent of that storm however gave them a chance to get before and after photos. In October 2018 I found several images in monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and posted them, making a vain attempt to locate what had changed. As I wrote,

I found that MRO has taken images of this location twice before, in 2007 and in 2009. I spent about fifteen minutes trying to find something that had changed, but was unable to locate anything, other than what look like a few wind-blown streaks probably caused by dust devils. I suspect I do not know what to look for.

I then made some guesses about what caused these splotches, all wrong I have since learned.

Since then more images of these splotches have been downloaded from MRO, all once again indicating that changes have been detected. Below is a sequence of images of the splotch dubbed Ka’ula, the first taken in 2008, the second in 2018 just after the global dust storm, and the third in 2019, one year after the storm. Set side-by-side the changes are more obvious.
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A crack in the Martian crust

Crack in the Martian crust
Click for full image.

Cerberus Fossae

The photograph to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, was imaged on October 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a spectacular thousand-foot-deep canyon in the region of Cerberus Fossae, an area of Mars crossed by numerous deep east-west fissures and depressions.

Hidden in the small white box on the eastern end of that canyon are Martian geological features, small and at first glance not that interesting, that are of great significance and the focus of intense research.

The map to the right shows an overview of the region. The yellow cross shows the location of this particular crack.

In my previous post about Cerberus Fossae, I had incorrectly assumed that these cracks and similar lines of pits or depressions were caused by the sinking of surface material into underground lava tubes. While this is possible in some cases, it is not the main cause of these cracks. Instead, they were formed due to the pressure from below caused by the rise of the surrounding giant volcanoes, Elysium Mons to the north and Olympus Mons to the east. That pressure stretched the crust until it cracked in numerous places. In Cerberus Fossae this produced a series of parallel east-west fissures, some more than seven hundred miles long.

The young age of Cerberus Fossae is dramatically illustrated by the wider mosaic below, showing the entire crack.
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Martian “What the heck?” formations

What the heck caused these?
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Cool image time! In digging through the new images that come down from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), my reaction sometimes is “What the heck caused that?”

That was my reaction when I looked at the image to the right, cropped to post here.

The full image, taken on October 6, 2019, shows the floor of one of the many north-south fissures found in the volcanic Tharsis Bulge west of Valles Marineris and east of Olympus Mons. The fissures are caused when the crust is pushed upward by volcanic pressure, causing the surface to crack.

In this case the mystery is that patch of east-west ridges at the bottom of this somewhat wide fissure. While they might be dunes, they do not resemble dunes, as they have a rigid and somewhat sharp appearance. More puzzling is their somewhat abrupt appearance and disappearance. Except for its northern end, the edges of the patch are so sharply defined. If these were dunes you’d think they’d fade away more gradually.

Could the ridges be a more resistant subsurface feature slowly being revealed as surface material erodes away? Sure, but their orientation is completely opposite to the north-south fissures that dominate this region. One would expect deeper features to reflect that same general orientation. These ridges do not.

This image was dubbed a “Terrain Sample,” which means it was taken not because of any specific research goal, but because the scientists who run MRO’s high resolution camera had a gap in their schedule and needed to take a picture to maintain the camera’s proper temperature. In such cases they often take somewhat random images, not knowing what they will find. In this case they struck geological gold, a mystery that some postdoc student could spend a lot of time analyzing.

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Further explorations at candidate Starship Mars landing site

Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit near candidate Starship landing sites
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Close-up on exposed lower layer

Cool image time! Even though it appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of images of its candidate landing sites surrounding the Erebus Montes mountains in the Arcadia Planitia plains in the Martian northern lowlands, this does not mean that other planetary scientists are not asking for more images of this region, for their own scientific research.

The photograph on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was released in the early November image download from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned but dubbed “Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit,” it shows what appears at first glance to be a relatively featureless area south of Erebus Montes, out in the flat plains.

A closer look suggests otherwise. For one, the full image shows darker and lighter areas. The close-up to the right, its location indicated by the white box in the wider image above, also shows several intriguing depressions that appear to be revealing a knobby lower layer. In fact, in the full image it appears that the darker areas are areas where material has covered that knobby lower layer. Where it is bright the ground resembles the floors of these depressions, knobby and complex.

I do not know why they label this the “beginning” of a glacial unit. What I do know is that the research of this region has consistently found evidence of a lot of buried ice. To quote Donna Viola of the University of Arizona noted, “I think you could dig anywhere to get your water ice.” The knobby features to me suggest a surface that is showing signs of sublimation, where the exposed ice is slowly eroding. Think of what happens to a block of ice when you spray warm water on it. As it melts it leaves behind just these kinds of strange formations.

Overview of all MRO images at Starship candidate landing site

The red box in the map on the right shows the location of this photograph relative to the other images taken for SpaceX. The white boxes are the company’s images taken for Starship. The black boxes are the images it obtained in 2017 when it was thinking of sending a Dragon capsule to Mars.

This map does not show all images taken by MRO’s high resolution camera in this area, but the coverage is very scattered, with many gaps. Over time I suspect these gaps will be filled more quickly than other northern plain regions, because the scientists know that SpaceX has an interest in this area. That interest means there is an increased chance that a mission will fly here in the relatively near future, which in turn is going to generate more scientific interest as well.

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More Martian pits, filled and unfilled!

Pit in Ceraunius Fossae
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Overview of Ceraunius Fossae

Time for what has almost become a monthly pit report from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The November image download from the spacecraft’s high resolution camera included two pit-related photographs, both very different. To the right is the first, cropped to focus on the pit and the immediate surrounding terrain. Below that is a wider overview map to provide the context.

This pit’s location is indicated by the white box at the southern end of a region dubbed Ceraunius Fossae, made of hundreds and hundreds of parallel north-south fissures extending more than seven hundred miles south of the giant volcano Alba Mons and caused when the ground was stretched from below, causing it to crack.

This surrounding terrain helps to explain the pit’s origin. First it is located in a north-south depression with a number of other less pronounced depressions. While these do not line up precisely, they still suggest that they are sinkholes where the surface material is draining downward into voids below. Normally the assumption would be the existence of a lava tube, but here the downward grade is very small. Instead, what is likely happening is that the ground is being stretched, causing cracks to form into which surface material slips downward.

The Ceraunius Fossae fractures are extensional features produced when the crust is stretched apart…. Mechanical studies indicate that a regional pattern of radiating graben and rifts is consistent with stresses caused by loading of the lithosphere by the enormous weight of the Tharsis bulge….Several generations of grabens with slightly different orientations are present in Ceraunius Fossae, indicating that stress fields have changed somewhat over time.

In addition to producing normal faults and graben, extensional stresses can produce dilatant fractures or tension cracks that can open up subsurface voids. When surface material slides into the void, a pit crater may form. Pit craters are distinguishable from impact craters in lacking raised rims and surrounding ejecta blankets. On Mars, individual pit craters can coalesce to form crater chains (catenae) or troughs with scalloped edges.

That’s what we see here. The pit is suggestive of a void below, but it is likely not going to be a long coherent underground passage but a serious of random gaps, aligned roughly along the larger crack and producing the various depressions on the surface.

Today’s second pit is of an entire different nature.
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Mars Express confirms ancient glaciers in northern Martian mid-latitudes

Perspective view of Deuteronilus Mensae
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The European Space Agency’s orbiter Mars Express has confirmed the presence of large fractured ice sheets suggestive of buried and ancient glaciers. These ice sheets are within one region on Mars located in the mid-latitudes where many such glacial features have been found. They are also in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands.

This landscape shows clear and widespread signs of significant, lasting erosion. As is common with fretted terrain, it contains a mix of cliffs, canyons, scarps, steep-sided and flat-topped mounds (mesa), furrows, fractured ridges and more, a selection of which can be seen dotted across the frame.

These features were created as flowing material dissected the area, cutting through the existing landscape and carving out a web of winding channels. In the case of Deuteronilus Mensae, flowing ice is the most likely culprit. Scientists believe that this terrain has experienced extensive past glacial activity across numerous martian epochs.

It is thought that glaciers slowly but surely ate away at the plains and plateaus that once covered this region, leaving only a scattering of steep, flat, isolated mounds of rock in their wake.

Smooth deposits cover the floor itself, some marked with flow patterns from material slowly moving downhill – a mix of ice and accumulated debris that came together to form and feed viscous, moving flows of mass somewhat akin to a landslide or mudflow here on Earth.

Studies of this region by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter [MRO] have shown that most of the features seen here do indeed contain high levels of water ice. Estimates place the ice content of some glacial features in the region at up to 90%. This suggests that, rather than hosting individual or occasional icy pockets and glaciers, Deuteronilus Mensae may actually represent the remnants of an old regional ice sheet. This ice sheet may once have covered the entire area, lying atop the plateaus and plains. As the martian climate changed this ice began to shift around and disappear, slowly revealing the rock beneath.

Overall, the data coming from both Mars Express and MRO increasingly suggests that there is a lot of buried glacial ice in the mid-latitudes. Mars might be a desert, but it is increasingly beginning to look like much of the planet is a desert like Antarctica, not the Sahara.

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Mid-latitude Martian glacier?

Glacier on Mars?
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Cool image time! I have posted a lot of Mars photographs in the past few months showing possible glaciers in the mid-latitudes of Mars, where scientists think they have identified a lot of such features. Today is another, but unlike many of the previous examples, this particular feature more closely resembles a typical Earth glacier than almost any I have so far posted.

Based on the image’s title, “Lineated Valley Fill in Northern Mid-Latitudes,” given by the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I suspect that it remains unproven that these are features of buried glacial ice. Thus, they use a more vague descriptive term, lineated, to avoid pre-judging what these features are.

Nonetheless, a glacier is sure what this lineated valley fill looks like. See for example the Concordia confluence of two glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan, near the world’s second highest mountain, K2. Though obviously not the same, you can see many similarities between this Martian feature and Concordia.

MRO has taken only three photographs of this particular valley, with one image useless because it was taken during a dust storm. Yet, the other good image, farther downstream in this valley, shows very similar features.

The valley itself is formed from chaos terrain, located in the transition zone between the southern cratered highlands and the flat northern lowlands where a possible intermittent ocean might have once existed. Thus, for buried ice to be here is quite possible.

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Unearthly pit in Martian northern icecap

Giant pit in Martian North polar icecap
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Cool image time! It is spring in the Martian north, and thus the Sun has risen and remains in the sky for most if not all of each day, circling the horizon. As such, it illuminates polar icecap features that are strange and weird and hard to decipher based on our expectations here on Earth.

The photograph to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a good example. It was taken on September 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and shows a pit in the outer regions of the polar icecap, an area where that water icecap remains relatively stable, but that is also at a low enough latitude that summer sunlight can cause some erosion and sublimation of the ice.

The bottom of the pit is the center of the bullseye, with the layered features in the surrounding walls showing the many layers inside the icecap, built up over centuries, then slowly revealed as the ice in this pit slowly sublimated away.

You can get a better sense of what you are looking at by the overview map below.
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Sinkholes galore!

Sinkholes galore south of Olympus Mons
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Cool image time! The photograph to the left, cropped to post here, was part of the November image dump from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a wind-swept dusty plain trending downhill to the west that is filled with more than a hundred depressions or sinkholes.

Unlike other pit images I have posted previously, this one is not focused on one particular pit or a string of pits. Instead, what makes it interesting is the large number of pits, scattered across the terrain in a random pattern. Their random distribution suggests that they are unrelated to any specific underground feature, such as a lava tube. Instead, some aspect of the underground geology here is causing the ground to sink at random points.

Below is an overview map showing where this dusty pit-strewn plain is located, indicated by the blue cross.
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