Tag Archives: Mars

Midnight repost: Mars!

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Despite my many essays on culture and politics, Behind the Black remains mostly a site reporting on space and science. Since the modern exploration of Mars is probably the most significant on-going event now in space, it seemed unsatisfactory to only repost one or two of my past articles on this subject, when I have probably have posted hundreds. Instead, this midnight repost will provide links to a bunch, divided into several topics.

Martian geology, shown in cool images

First, we have the many cool images I have posted on Mars, often tied to detailed descriptions of what scientists are now beginning to learn about the red planet’s mysterious geological history. The following are the most important, and will help readers better understand future cool images.

Future colonization

Next, two posts, both focused on the future exploration and colonization of Mars.
» Read more

Spring at the Martian South Pole

Geysers on Mars?
Click for full image.

Geysers on Mars
Click for full image.

It is now full spring at the Martian south pole, and as should be expected much has been happening there. Like the Martian north pole, when sunlight arrives after the dark winter it hits the seasonally-placed mantle or cap of carbon dioxide snow and begins to melt it, in the alien ways things like this occur on Mars.

The two images to the right illustrate this process for one particular place located in what are called the south polar layered deposits. The two images, just released on July 1, 2020 from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and taken on May 14 and May 30 respectively, had immediately caught my attention because they were labeled “Active Geyser Locale Dubbed Macclesfield.” Active geysers?! I immediately contacted Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, whom I correctly guessed had requested these photos. She explained,

The name for this site is of course informal, and it dates back to when I first started picking sites to monitor. I was so certain we would see active geysers here! We see their deposits, the fans on the surface, but so far we have not caught an actual eruption in progress.

The overview map of the south pole below provides some context.
» Read more

InSight’s mole is bouncing again

Plan of action for InSight's mole

The engineering team for InSight’s German-built digging tool, dubbed the mole, yesterday reported that it is once again no longer driving into the ground.

Previously they had been able to make progress by having InSight’s scoop press down on the mole. Once the top of the mole however was below ground, the scoop could no longer provide that support, and at that point the mole began bouncing again with each hammer-stroke, the surrounding Martian dirt unable to provide the friction to hold the mole down.

As shown by the illustration above, they are now going to try using the scoop to fill the hole and then use the scoop to press down on the dirt, with the hope this will provide the structural friction required to hold the mole in place after each hammer stroke. This effort will take time, and will prevent the scoop from doing its other work. They are therefore taking a pause until August before beginning the hole-filling operation.

Rover update: Curiosity’s future journey

Mount Sharp, with Curiosity's future travels
Click for full image.

[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.]

Today the science team of Curiosity issued a press release outlining their travel plans for the rover over the next year. In conjunction, they also released a mosaic of 116 images taken by the rover showing that route, a reduced in resolution version shown above.

The rover’s next stop is a part of the mountain called the “sulfate-bearing unit.” Sulfates, like gypsum and Epsom salts, usually form around water as it evaporates, and they are yet another clue to how the climate and prospects for life changed nearly 3 billion years ago.

But between the rover and those sulfates lies a vast patch of sand that Curiosity must drive around to avoid getting stuck. Hence the mile-long road trip: Rover planners, who are commanding Curiosity from home rather than their offices at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, expect to reach the area in early fall, although the science team could decide to stop along the way to drill a sample or study any surprises they come across.

Overview map sol 2804 of Curiosity's route

This journey actually began in late May, at about the time of my last rover update. The overview map to the right shows in red their approximate planned route to avoid that large dune field to the south. The meandering yellow line indicates Curiosity’s actual route. The straight yellow lines indicates I think the area covered by the mosaic above. As you can see, since the end of May they have quickly returned to their planned route. Note also that the dune field extends about twice the distance beyond the eastern edge of this overview map.

The next big goal when they reach that sulfate-bearing unit will be to not only study it but to also study a recurring slope lineae on the slopes of that unit, a streak that darkens and lightens seasonally that might be caused by seeping brine from below. Because the sulfate unit and the linneae are both major geological goals, they are going to be moving fast to get there. I am sure they will periodically stop to do geology, but I think the travel will be, as it has been for the past month, quick-paced.

Once the rover gets to the sulfate unit, Curiosity will at last have actually reached the base of Mount Sharp. Up until now it has been traveling first in the surrounding plains, then in the mountain’s foothills. The terrain will get much rougher and be far more spectacular, as Curiosity will be entering canyons as it begins to climb the mountain itself.

A hanging crater on Mars

Hanging crater
Click for full image.

Overview

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 1, 2020, and shows a truly intriguing crater that they dub a “Crater Hanging on Mesa Wall.”

Located in Deuteronilus Mensae, a chaos region of mesas and cross-crossing canyons in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands, the crater literally overhangs the edge of this canyon’s cliff. The overview map to the right, with this location indicated by the red box, illustrates what this region’s geology is like.

The most likely explanation is that the impact occurred prior to the creation of the canyon, and when the canyon eroded, the material in and of this crater was more resistant, probably because the impact had packed it together to increase its density.

At the same time, the features inside both craters in the photo, as well as below them on the floor of the canyon, suggest the presence of buried glaciers, something not unlikely at the 45 degree north latitude where this crater sits.

So, here’s a guess at the geological history. First we had the impact, then during the eons of glacial ebb and flow on Mars due to wide swings in the planet’s obliquity (its rotational tilt), the canyon was cut, with that erosion leaving the crater sitting high above the canyon floor below it.

One more curious detail: The material in the canyon seems asymmetric, suggesting that the crater actually dips down toward the canyon, as if it as a unit has tilted to the east as the canyon was worn out below it.

China announces target launch date for its Tianwen-1 Mars rover

The new colonial movement: According to a new report out of Singapore, China has set July 20-25 as the launch window for its Mars orbiter/lander/rover mission, dubbed Tianwen-1.

Should they meet this date, it means they will launch before Perseverance, arriving at Mars about the same time, in February 2021. And like Perseverance, this launch window closes this summer, and if they can’t meet it they will have to wait two years.

Perseverance launch delayed to July 30, 2020

Not good: Because of an issue with the Atlas 5 rocket, NASA and ULA have decided to delay again the launch of the next Mars rover Perseverance from July 22nd to July 30th.

“Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30,” NASA said. “A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.”

ULA performed the Wet Dress Rehearsal on June 22. The exercise involved rolling the Perseverance rover’s Atlas 5 launcher out of its vertical integration hangar to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad, then loading the rocket with kerosene, liquid hydrogen, and liquid oxygen propellants. The launch team practiced countdown procedures, testing the Atlas 5’s systems before halting the pre-launch sequence seconds before ignition of the rocket’s RD-180 main engine.

Their official launch window extends to August 11th, though they could still launch as late as August 15th and get to their landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

This is the third delay. The first involved a faulty crane and the second contamination issues in the rover’s clean room. Now an issue with an oxygen sensor. Let us hope their are no more, and that the weather then cooperates. It they don’t launch by August 15th the launch will then be postponed for two whole years.

Perseverance launch delayed two days

NASA and ULA have agreed to delay the launch of the new Mars rover Perseverance two days, from July 20th to July 22nd, because of “a contamination concern.”

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance was scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet on July 20 from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But a problem cropped up as engineers worked to encapsulate the rover in the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance.

“NASA and United Launch Alliance are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” NASA officials said in an update. “Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

This contamination likely relates to their effort to keep the rover free from Earth biology.

The official launch window closes on August 11th, though they can still launch as late as August 15th and get to their targeted landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

More strange terrain in the Martian “Death Valley”

More strange terrain in Hellas Basin
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image, rotated cropped, and reduced to post here, might show what the science team for the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have labeled “strange banded terrain”, but anyone who has spent any time perusing images of Hellas Basin, what I have labeled the basement of Mars because it has the lowest elevation on the planet, will recognize the features.

They might be inexplicable, but for Hellas Basin they are entirely familiar. Just take a look at some of my earlier posts:
» Read more

Perseverance: update on launch rehearsal and helicopter

Two news stories today about the launch of the United States’ next Mars rover, Perservance.

First, ULA yesterday successfully completed a dress rehearsal countdown with the Atlas 5 rocket that will launch Perseverance on July 20 at 9:15 am (Eastern)..

The rover will be mounted onto the rocket at the end of this week.

Second, JPL provided this press release describing how Perseverance’s test helicopter Ingenuity will be deployed on the Martian surface, where it will then test to see if such helicopters will work in the Martian atmosphere.

Sixty Martian days (dubbed sols) after landing in Jezero Crater on February 18, Perseverance will find a nice large flat area and deploy the helicopter six sols later. The helicopter will then begin its 30-sol test program. If it is found to work, future rovers will almost certainly be equipped with such helicopters, acting as scouts able to go places the rover cannot.

Enigmatic layering and chasms on Mars

Enigmatic layering and chasms
Click for full image.

Overview map

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on April 28, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (MRO). The science team entitled it “Enigmatic Uplifts in Echus Montes,” indicating a sense of bafflement on their part about this geology.

The features here are certainly somewhat puzzling. At first glance the terrain is reminiscent of Martian chaos terrain, mesas cut by canyons in an almost random pattern. As I explained at the link,

Chaos terrain is typically a collection of mesas separated by straight-lined canyons. It is found in many places on Mars, most often in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might once have existed. It is believed to form by erosion, possibly caused by either flowing water or ice, moving along fault lines. As the erosion widened the faults, they turned into canyons separating closely packed mesas. With time, the canyons widened and the mesas turned into a collection of hills.

What makes this particular image puzzling however is that there seem to be multiple layers of mesas and canyons. Look at the top of the rectangular mesa in the upper middle of the image. It appears to have its own miniature chaos terrain on its plateau. Somehow that first layer of chaos was abandoned when the more prominent larger canyons started to form around it.

The location of this feature is indicated by the black cross on the overview map to the right. It is in the middle of the large and wide northward trending part of the giant valley dubbed Kasei Valles. And as usual, knowing the location helps explain what we are seeing.
» Read more

Trace Gas Orbiter detects oxygen layer in Martian atmosphere

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, has detected for the first time the green atmospheric layer in Martian atmosphere caused by the interaction of oxygen and sunlight.

From what I can tell from the press release at the link, they did not “see” this green glow, they detected it spectroscopically. So, any images you see portraying it are simply artist renditions, not the real thing.

The detection is important, nonetheless. First, it confirms that there is oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere. Second, it is the first time this has been detected in the atmosphere other than Earth. Third, the detection matched closely to their computer models, suggesting that the models are a reasonable simulation of this aspect of Mars’ atmosphere.

Deciphering the strange geology of Mars — or anything!

Eroding Medusae Fossae Formation ash deposits
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image is for once not taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Instead, the image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by Mars Odyssey on April 5, 2020, and shows the scouring and erosion caused by winds over many eons in a region dubbed Zephyria Planum. (Note that the image might fool your eye. Sunlight is coming from the east, and the rough terrain at the top is higher than the smooth plain at the bottom.)

Years ago, when I first started to rummage through the archives of images from the various Mars orbiters, I would have seen this image and posted it because I was completely baffled by what I saw, and thought that mystery made it worth showing to the public. Since then my incessant probing of research papers as well as asking a lot of questions of scientists has taught me a lot more about what scientists now surmise of the Martian geology. This greater knowledge in turn makes it possible for me to look at an image like this and immediately make a reasonable guess as to an explanation. This photo, while still containing much that is mysterious, is no longer completely baffling to me.

This willingness to ask questions and dig deeper is fundamental to all things. To have a deeper understanding and not simply guess about any subject, you always have to recognize that your assumptions are likely wrong, and that to learn anything you have to repeatedly ask what I call “the next question.” The first answer will force you to recognize that your first guesses are wrong, raise more questions, which in turn will lead to more questions, and then more questions, and so forth.

Whether I am researching Mars or early space history or politics, this rule always applies. Don’t leap to a conclusion. Think it possible you could be wrong. Ask the next question. And the next. You will repeatedly find that what you thought you knew was not correct, and in the end you will gain a deeper understanding of what is actually known about any subject, as well as what is unknown. And knowing the unknowns is probably the most important thing you can learn.

To gain a better understanding of today’s particular image, our first questions must start with context. Where is this feature on Mars? What is the surrounding history of that location? And what is already known about this place?

The location immediately reveals a great deal, as shown in the overview map below.
» Read more

Help scientists plan Curiosity’s future travels

The Curiosity science team is asking the help of ordinary citizens in improving the software it uses to plan Curiosity’s future travels.

Using the online tool AI4Mars to label terrain features in pictures downloaded from the Red Planet, you can train an artificial intelligence algorithm to automatically read the landscape.

Is that a big rock to the left? Could it be sand? Or maybe it’s nice, flat bedrock. AI4Mars, which is hosted on the citizen science website Zooniverse, lets you draw boundaries around terrain and choose one of four labels. Those labels are key to sharpening the Martian terrain-classification algorithm called SPOC (Soil Property and Object Classification).

The goal is not to have citizens plan the rover’s route, but to use their judgments to refine the software that the scientists and engineers use to plan the route. This refinement will also be applicable to Perseverance when it gets to Jezero Crater in February 2021.

Isidis Basin, on whose margin Perseverance will roam

Pedestal craters in Isidis Basin
Click for full image.

Overview map

Today’s cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, highlights the floor of one of Mars’ largest basins, dubbed Isidis Planitia, and located at the transition zone between the planet’s northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands.

The overview map below of Isidis Basin provides some context. The white box shows where this particular image is located. Jezero Crater, indicated by the red circle (which is also about the size of the crater), is where the rover Perseverance is going to land and roam come February 2021, should all go well. For scale, Isidis is about the size of the eastern half of the United States. If Chicago was located at Jezero Crater, Baltimore would be on the basin’s eastern edge, at around 4 o’clock.

This particular section of the full photo, taken on April 5, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), shows many features very typical of the floor of Isidis Basin, which also immediately reveal a great deal about its possible history.

In this small snippet we can see what at first glance appear to be pedestal craters standing up like mesas, with ordinary craters scattered about on that lower surrounding terrain. Clearly, if these are pedestal craters they had to have been created first, and then over a very long time erosion processes ate away at that plain, leaving these pedestals (which had become resistant to erosion because the impact had packed their material together and made it harder) behind as mesas.

Then, after this period of erosion was complete enough additional time was required for at least one or two rounds of cratering to occur, leaving behind the many more younger craters on the plain floor, many of which are now partly buried by dust and sand.

The problem is that these mesas are almost certainly not pedestal craters, despite their appearance. » Read more

Fading Martian slope streaks

Fading Martian slope streaks
Click for full image.

Cool image time! I’ve covered the topic of the mysterious slope streaks on Mars previously in great detail (see here and here). Essentially they are generally dark streaks (but sometimes light) that appear randomly on slopes and then fade over time. Unlike recurring slope lineae, another changing streak found on Martian slopes, the coming and going of slope streaks is not tied to the seasons. They can appear at any time in the year, and will take several Martian years to fade away.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on March 26, 2020. It shows numerous slope streaks down the eastern interior rim of a crater in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern cratered highlands in a region dubbed Arabia Terra.

Though I can find no previous high resolution image of this crater to measure any temporal changes, you can clearly see that this slope has experienced many streaks over time, with some darker than others. The different shades suggest that the lighter streaks are older and have faded, with the darker streaks more recent events.

At the moment there is no strong consensus on the causes of these streaks. As one science paper noted, “The processes that form slope streaks remain obscure. No proposed mechanism readily accounts for all of their observed characteristics and peculiarities.” We know they occur in equatorial regions and dusty locations, and that they are triggered by some disturbance at the topmost point of the streak, which then causes a chain reaction down the slope. Other than that, the facts are puzzling, and suggest that these streaks are a phenomenon wholly unique to Mars.

The crater itself, located at 24 degrees north latitude, has some other mysteries. The features on its floor, for instance, are very puzzling. Though suggestive of the buried glaciers found in many craters in the mid-latitudes, this crater is a bit too far south. Maybe its higher altitude allows for some ice to remain here? Then again, the features on that floor might have nothing to do with ice. Maybe we are looking at sand carved by wind? Or hardened mud that was once wet?

I am merely guessing, a dangerous thing to do when one’s knowledge is limited. Then again, it’s fun, so please join in with your own guesses.

An exposed dry waterfall on Mars

An exposed dry waterfall on Mars
Click for full image.

Close overview map

Wide overview map

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on April 30, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned, the science team titled the release as a “Cataract in Osuga Valles.”

To understand what we are looking at it is necessary to also see a wider view, as provided by the context map below and to the right. As you can see, this image straddles across the canyon called Osuga Valles, and heads downstream to the east. It also shows a point where the grade of that canyon suddenly drops. If water ever flowed here this place would have been the location of a truly spectacular waterfall.

More likely, these cataracts mark the location where sometime in the past a glacier had flowed down this valley, cutting a path until it broke out into the large and wide dead end area that appears to have no clear outlet. For some reason at this point the downhill grade of this canyon suddenly dropped, with the glacier following that sudden steep drop.

There is no glaciers here now, as this location is at 14 degrees south latitude, too close to the equator for any ice to remain close to the surface. Instead, dust dunes remain as the only feature flowing down through these cataracts.

The second overview map provides further context, showing the location of Osuga Valles relative to nearby Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon system in the solar system. Whatever process formed that gigantic canyon system certainly was a factor in forming Osuga Valles. The details however are not yet understood with any certainty. All we presently have are theories.

InSight mole team reports some digging success

InSight scoop pushing against mole as it digs
Click to watch movie.

A new strategy devised in February to use the scoop on the Mars InSight lander to push down on the mole digging tool so that it could gain traction and dig downward has apparently had some success.

We started about seven centimetres above the surface on Sol 458 (11 March) and we are now at the surface with the scoop on Sol 536 (30 May 30), after six cycles of hammering over 11 weeks.

If you click on the image on the right you can see a movie assembled from images taken since February as they pushed down. The mole has clearly descended into the Martian soil about seven centimeters, or about three inches. The issue now, as shown in the movie, is that the mole is now deep enough that the scoop is pressed against the ground. It can’t really push down anymore on the mole, at least in this configuration.

They have the option of using the scoop’s tip to push farther into the ground, but that involves some risk. First they plan to let the mole continue to dig, without the scoop’s help, in the hope that it is now finally deep enough into the ground that the ground is finally able to provide the friction required to hold the mole in place. If this doesn’t work, they will then try using the scoop to fill the hole up to provide more friction.

If that doesn’t work, they will then try using the scoop tip to provide the added pressure.

All in all, it does appear there is now hope that the mole will eventually get the heat sensor for measuring the internal temperatue on Mars deep enough to do its primary mission. Stay tuned!

The strange squashed ridges at the basement of Mars

Squashed ridges at the basement of Mars
Click for full image.

Overview map

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 9, 2020, and shows the very weird and very packed ridges and layers that are found routinely at the deepest part of Hellas Basin, what I have dubbed the basement of Mars.

Be sure to click on the image to see the full photograph. There’s lots more strangeness to see there. And be sure to read my post in the second link, which highlights a similarly strange set of packed ridges, and where I note:

This is the basement 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 context map to the right shows Hellas, with the location of today’s image indicated by the white box, close to basin’s lowest point, more than five miles below the basin’s rim. Overall the Hellas Basin is about the size of the western United States, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. It is believed that the entire basin was created by a single gigantic impact that occurred about four billion years ago when the solar system’s inner planets were undergoing what has been labeled the Late Heavy Bombardment.

The specific process that formed these ridges, dubbed honeycomb terrain by scientists, remains unknown however. There are of course theories, none of which are very convincing. Here’s mine, as outlined in the previous post:
» Read more

Thar’s ice in them Martian hills!

Icy mountains in Erebus Montes?
Click for full image.

Overview map of Starship landing site images

Cool image time! Today we return to the Erebus Mountains, located just to the west of SpaceX’s prime candidate landing site for Starship on Mars. The photo to the right, taken on April 4, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows one particular area between the peaks in those mountains, and also happens to be very close to what I have labeled image #1 in SpaceX’s Starship landing site photos.

The second image below and to the right shows an overview map of this region, with the SpaceX photos indicated by the numbered white boxes and the location of this image indicated by the red box, right next to image #1. The black boxes were images that SpaceX had obtained from MRO earlier, when it was first planning to send a Dragon capsule to Mars using a Falcon Heavy, a project the company has put aside in its focus on building Starship.

To my eye, everything in the first image above reeks of an icy, glacial terrain. I certainly am guessing, but it is an educated guess based on looking at numerous similar images in this region (see here and here, ) as well as in the nearby Phlegra mountains to the west. I also base my guess on what I have learned interviewing planetary scientists who are studying these images. The reasonableness of this guess is further strengthened in that the location is at 39 degrees north latitude, dead center in the mid-latitude bands where scientists have found evidence of numerous buried glaciers.

If Starship lands just to the east of the Erebus Mountains, the first colonists will likely not only have water available at their feet close to the surface in the flat lowland plains, if they find that resource insufficient they will need only climb uphill a bit into these hills to dig out as much ice as they could ever need.

Rover update: The state of Curiosity’s wheels

[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.]

In my last rover update (April 16, 2020), I posted some new images taken of Curiosity’s wheels, showing the damage that they have experienced during the rover’s journey so far in Gale Crater.

At the time, I was unable to match any of the released images, taken on Sol 2732 (April 13, 2020), with the previous wheel image I have used to quickly gauge any new damage (see my July 9, 2019 report).

As it turns out, one of those images did match the earlier image. I simply failed to realize it. Today’s daily download of raw images from Curiosity included additional photos of the rover’s wheels, apparently also taken on Sol 2732 but not available until now. One of those images matches the earlier wheel image, and this time I spotted the match. A comparison is posted below, with my analysis.
» Read more

A Martian crater with a straight edge

A mis-shapened crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was released today by the science team of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a small Martian crater whose northern rim for some reason is flattened into a straight line. Such a crater is rare, since almost all craters rims are round, even in the case of a low angle impact. The cause is unknown, though there are theories. From the caption, written by Ingrid Daubar of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona:

One possibility is that there was a zone of joints or faults in the crust that existed before the impact. When the impact happened, the crater formed along the straight line of these faults. Something similar happened to Meteor Crater in Arizona. Our image doesn’t show any faults, but they could be beneath the surface.

Perhaps some sort of uneven collapse changed the shape of the crater. There are piles of material on the crater’s floor, especially in the northwest and northeast corners. If those piles fell down from the rim, why did it happen there and not in other places? This crater is near the size where larger craters start to show wall slumping and terraces, so this type of collapse could be occurring unevenly.

The crater is located in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, at about 32 degrees latitude. At that latitude, it is also possible that some past glacial activity could have misshapen this crater, though I have no idea how. The crater itself does not appear to have any glacial material in it.

Weird central peak in Martian crater

Textured central peak in Martian crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 18, 2020. It shows a very strange central peak in a crater on Mars. Not only does this peak stick out like a sore thumb in a relatively flat crater floor, its surface is strangely textured, patterned with what look like scallops.

The overview map below shows the area covered in the crater by the full image.

My guess is that the peak is the final impact melt from the original impact. Think of a pebble thrown into a pond. You get ripples (the crater rim) as well as an upward drop of water (the central peak). Unlike pond water, the material in a crater freezes quickly, leaving both the ripple and the upward drop frozen in place.

Close overview of crater

This peak however also reminds me of volcanic cones found in the American southwest, the remnant cone of a much larger volcano that has long ago eroded away.

The textures might be evidence of that erosion process, as they resemble scallops that wind and water erosion can cause on rock faces.

We also could be seeing dunes on the slopes themselves, though I think this is unlikely. This crater is on the edge of the vast Medusae Fossae Formation, the largest volcanic ash deposit field on Mars, as shown by the white cross on the overview map below. Thus, being on the edge of this ash field there is a lot of available dust and sand that can pile up on these slopes.

Wide Overview map

Still, the sunlight side of the ridge suggests the scallops are in bedrock, not sand dunes. And to assign their origin to either wind or water or ice erosion I think is a stretch.

So while the peak is probably the frozen melt remains of the original impact, the scallops are a geological mystery that needs unraveling.

Amazing layers

Bedrock layering in Holden Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a cool captioned image entitled “Exquisite Layering”, showing a place on the floor of Holden Crater where the dust and sand that normally covers most of the Martian surface has been wiped away, cleared off because these layers are on higher sloping terrain.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, focuses in on that exposed layering, believed to be sedimentary and must have therefore happened in the eons following the impact that caused the crater.

Overview map

The overview map to the right shows with the red box the location of this layering inside Holden Crater. The map also illustrates why this crater was considered a candidate landing site for Curiosity. Like Gale Crater, it has evidence — the large meandering canyon system flowing into the crater — that suggests it had once been filled with a water lake. These sedimentary layers support that hypothesis, suggesting that this lake was intermittent. Each time it refilled and then dried up, it laid down a new deposit of those sedimentary layers.

Launch date for UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter set

The new colonial movement: Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have set the launch date for UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter, now scheduled for July 15 with a launch window that closes on August 13.

If all goes well it will enter Mars orbit in February 2021.

The probe is a UAE project in name only. Much of it was built in the U.S. by U.S. companies, working with UAE engineers and scientists. It is also being launched by Japan.

Regardless, the training and knowledge obtained by those UAE engineers and scientists is the real point of the mission. The UAE wants to diversify its economy away from oil, and it is trying to use the excitement of space exploration to do it. It hopes these engineers and scientists will use what they learned to come up with new projects that in the future will be built entirely in the UAE.

More pits found on Mars

Pit near Hephaestus Fossae
Click for full image.

Overview map

Since 2018 I have made it a point to document every new pit image taken on Mars by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The list of can be found at the bottom of this post.

In the most recent release from MRO, a number of new pits were photographed. All continue to suggest that Mars has a lot of underground voids, some caused by lava flow, some by tectonic activity, some by water ice erosion, and some almost certainly caused by processes we don’t yet know. The images also suggest that we have only identified a small fraction of those underground voids.

The first image to the right, cropped to post here, shows the one new pit in the northern lowlands of Utopia Planitia, near a series of meandering channels and canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae and Hebrus Valles.

This appears to be the fifth such pit found in this region. Previously I had documented the first four. The overview map to the right adds this fifth pit. Note how the pit is much closer to the head of Hephaestus. In the full image you can see fissures both to the north and south, as well as many nearby aligned depressions, suggesting the existence of more underground passages, some possibly linked to voids under this very pit.

The pit itself seems filled, with no apparent side passages, though to the southwest there might be something leading off in the shadows.

The overall terrain in this region, including these pits, the fissures, and the many aligned depressions, strongly suggests a lot of underground voids. As I noted in 2019:
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A shadowed ice patch on Mars

A shadowed ice patch on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The evidence coming back from Mars in the past two decades has increasingly suggested that there is a lot of water in that planet’s mid- and high latitudes. In the mid-latitudes the evidence suggests that ice is locked in a lot of buried and inactive glaciers that were laid down during periods when the planet’s rotational tilt, its obliquity, was greater so that the annual seasons were more extreme. During those times the mid-latitudes were colder than the poles, and water was being transferred from the poles to those mid-latitudes.

The image to the right appears to be more such evidence. Taken on March 21, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and brightened by me to bring out the important details, it shows what looks to be a distinct patch of ice on the south-facing slope of the rim of a large crater. Since this crater is in the southern mid-latitudes (34 degrees south), that south-facing slope generally gets much less sunlight, even in the summer, so any remaining buried glacial ice on that slope will linger for a longer period.

Think of the lingering ice and snow patches on shadowed locations on Earth. Because the Sun does not directly shine on them, they will be the last patches to melt away.

What I think is likely important about this patch are the exposed layers along its edge. These are the spots that are melting first, as they are where the ice is exposed, unprotected by a layer of dust and debris. It is also here that we have a window into that geological history. Even at this resolution you can see that the ice was laid down in layers, meaning that it contains evidence of those repeated climate cycles produced by Mars’ shifts in obliquity.

Those layers even seem to show the same sharp and sudden change from brighter and dirtier layers, as seen in the layers of the north pole ice cap, that occurred about 4.5 million years ago.

How tantalizing. The entire climate history of Mars is sitting there for us to decipher. We need only drill a few core samples and voila! the pieces of that history will start to fall into place.

The edge of an eroded buried Martian glacier

The edge of an eroded buried Maritian glacier
Click for full resolution image.

Overview

Cool image time! The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 6, 2020.

The image shows the dying edge of a debris flow coming down from a mesa, the edge of which can be seen as the dark slopes in the upper left. The white arrows point up slope. It is located in the chaos terrain of a mid-latitude region called Deuteronilus Mensae, in the transition zone between the southern highlands and northern lowlands, where many such glacial-like features are found. I featured a similar nearby glacial edge only two months ago, where the image showed the glacier’s break up and collapse at its edge.

Here, the debris flow isn’t breaking up so much as crumbling away, its edge a line of meandering depressions, with the uphill slope covered with many knobs and tiny depressions, reminiscent to me of the many features I see in caves, where the downward flow of water shapes and erodes everything to form cups and holes and knobs, all the same size. If you click on the full resolution image and zoom into that debris slope and then compare it with the linked cave formation photo, you will see the resemblance.

We are almost certainly looking at a buried inactive glacial flow coming off that mesa, though it appears to be eroding at its foot. The overview image to the right shows the context, with the red dots indicating this image as well as similar features in adjacent mensae regions (featured in the linked images above). While the chaotic and rough terrain found along this transition zone does not make them good first settlement sites, the ample evidence of vast reservoirs of buried ice, combined with a variety of topography, will likely someday make this good real estate for those living on Mars.

The blobby wettish flows of Mars

flow-like feature in Utopia Planitia
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Rather than talk about shut downs, lying politicians, and our tragically fear-filled society, let’s go exploring on Mars. The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 8, 2020. Dubbed a “Flow-Like Feature within the Adamas Labyrinthus”, it shows what appears to be a very distorted and eroded pedestal crater surrounded by strange triangular-shaped flow features.

It also shows, as does much other research, that the northern mid-latitudes of Mars have a lot of frozen water, much of it buried very close to the surface.

Assuming this is a pedestal crater (which it might not be), this feature has to be very old. Pedestal craters require age, as to stand out above the surrounding terrain a lot of time is needed to erode that terrain away. This age is confirmed by the bunch of newer craters on top.

At the same time, the partially filled small crater near its bottom, as well as the soft eroded depressions on top, suggest that much of this surface has been reshaped by more recent flows, changing its shape over time.

The surrounding triangular flows probably occurred at the original impact, and suggest that there is ice near the surface, making the material here act almost like wet mud when heated. Since this location is right in the middle of the mid-latitude bands where scientists have found lots of evidence of buried glaciers and ice near the surface, this supposition seems reasonable.

The overall location provides some further context.
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