Tag Archives: MRO

Ice-filled canyon on Mars?

The ice-filled head of Mamers Valles
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The image to the right, rotated, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on December 19, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Labeled “Head of Mamers Valles”, it shows the very end of one side canyon to this very extensive canyon system made up of the fractured fissures and mesas of chaos terrain.

Mamers Valles itself sits in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands. This specific canyon is close to those lowlands, at a latitude of 40 degrees north, where scientists believe there are many buried inactive glaciers of ice.

The image reinforces this belief. The entire canyon appears practically filled with what looks like ice. In fact, it almost looks like we are looking down at a frozen lake with a layer of snow on top of it. In this case, the layer is not snow, but dust and dirt and debris that covers the ice to protect it and prevent it from sublimating away.

The overview map below shows the location of this canyon, by the red cross, within Mamers Valles.

Mamers Valles

Mamers Valles is actually a very large collection of miscellaneous canyons, flowing into the lowlands. In some areas it looks like very old chaos terrain, with the canyons so eroded that all we see are scattered mesas. In other places the canyons more resemble meandering river canyons sometimes interspersed with crater impacts.

Scientists have analyzed the canyons in Mamers Valles, and from this concluded that they were likely formed from “subsurface hydrologic activity”. which in plain English means that flowing water below ground washed out large underground passages, which eventually grew large enough for their ceilings to collapse and form the canyons we see today.

Yesterday I posted an image of a string of pits that could very well be evidence of this same process in its early stages of canyon formation. In Mamers Valles the process is far more advanced, and the canyons have existed for a long time, long enough for the planet’s inclination to go through several cycles of change, from a low of 25 degrees tilt (what it is now) to has high as 60 degrees. At that high inclination the mid-latitudes were colder than the poles, so that ice would sublimate from the poles to fall as snow in the mid-latitudes, forming active glaciers within canyons such as this.

Now that the planet’s inclination is similar to Earth’s, 25 degrees, the poles are slightly colder than the mid-latitudes, and the glaciers in this canyon are either inactive (if buried) or slowly sublimating away so that the water can return to the poles.

Here however the surface debris appears to be protecting the glaciers, leaving the canyon filled mostly with ice. For future settlers this ice would likely be relatively accessible, and at a latitude where the environment is also relatively mild, for Mars.

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Pits indicating a Martian underground river?

A string of pits suggesting a past underground river system on Mars
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Cool image time! As my regular readers well know, I am a caver, and am thus always interested when the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) takes a close-up of a pit that might also be an entrance to a cave.

The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was part of the most recent image release from MRO, but was boringly labeled “Arabia Terra” after the region where it is located, one of the largest transition zones on Mars between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands. When I took a close look, what I found was an intriguing string of pits whose arrangement is strikingly reminiscent of a river tributary system.

The white box indicates one section that I have zoomed into, as shown below.
» Read more

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Martian wind-swept buried depressions

Wind-swept Martian depressions
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on January 3, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows three strange teardrop-shaped depressions, clearly wind-swept and partly buried by dust and sand.

The location on Mars of these depressions is in the transition zone between the southern cratered highlands and the northern lowlands. This is also a region dubbed the Medusae Fossae Formation, a region where it appears a great deal of volcanic material was laid down during one or more eruptive events 3 to 3.8 billion years ago.

Whether these depressions were formed during those events is impossible to tell from the available data, especially because the underlying bedrock is buried in dust.

Their shape appears to have been caused as the wind slowly exposed three buried peaks of hard rock. The wind, blowing from the southwest to the northeast, would hit the peaks, producing an downward eddy that would churn out dust from the windward side. The wind and dust would then blow around the peaks, creating the teardrop tail on the leeward side to the northeast.

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MRO undergoing maintenance and software upgrade

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in space now for fifteen years, will undergo a two week computer software upgrade.

The maintenance work involves updating battery parameters in the spacecraft’s flash memory – a rare step that’s been done only twice before in the orbiter’s 15 years of flight. This special update is necessary because it was recently determined that the battery parameters in flash were out of date and if used, would not charge MRO’s batteries to the desired levels.

In addition to the battery parameters, engineers will use this opportunity to update planetary position tables that also reside in flash. The spacecraft will go into a precautionary standby mode, called safe mode, three times over the course of the update. It will also swap from its primary computer, called its Side-A computer, to its redundant one, called Side-B.

During these two weeks the spacecraft will suspend its science and communications operations.

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Large glacier-filled crater/depression on Mars?

Glacier-filled depression?
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Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 21, 2019. It shows the eastern half of the floor and interior rim of a large squarish-shaped crater or depression in what seems to be an unnamed region of chaos terrain located in the transition zone between the Martian southern highlands and the northern lowland plains.

The floor of this depression has many of the features that indicate the presence of a buried ice glacier, including flow features on the depression floor, linear parallel grooves, and repeating moraine features at the slope base. In fact, all these features give the strong impression that this crater is ice-filled, to an unknown depth.

Chaos terrain, a jumble of mesas cut by straight canyons, are generally found in this transition zone, and could be an erosion feature produced by the intermittent ocean that some believe once existed in the northern lowlands. Whether or not an ocean lapped against these mesas and created them, this chaos terrain is believed to have been caused by some form of erosion, either wind, water, or ice.

Wide context view

The location is of this chaos terrain in that transition zone is illustrated by the context map to the right. It sits on the edge of the vast Utopia Basin, one of the largest and deepest northern lowland plains. It also sits several hundred miles due north of the planned landing site of the Mars2020 rover in Jezero Crater. There is a lot of chaos terrain in this region, with lots of evidence of buried glaciers flowing off the sides of mesas.

Today’s image, with its numerous features suggesting the presence of a buried glacier filling the depression, reinforces this evidence.

Closer context view, showing the chaos terrain region

What impresses me most about this particular depression — should it be ice-filled — is its size. I estimate from the scale of the image that the depression is about six miles across, somewhat comparable though slightly smaller than the width of the Grand Canyon. And yet, unlike the Canyon it appears to have a wide flat floor across its entire width. The second context map to the right zooms in on this chaos region to show how relatively large the depression is. It would not be hard to spot it from orbit. We don’t know the depth, but even if relatively shallow this depression still holds a heck of a lot of water ice.

While the depression appears like a crater in lower resolution wider photographs, higher resolution images suggest it is not round but squarish. Why is not clear, and unfortunately MRO’s high resolution camera has taken no other images of it. This image was also one of their terrain sample photographs, taken not because of any specific research request, but because they need to use the camera regularly to maintain its temperature. This location, having few previous images, fit this schedule and made sense photographing.

Thus, no one appears to be specifically studying this location, making it a ripe subject for some postdoc student who wants to put their name on some Martian geology.

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The range for exposed ice scarps on Mars keeps growing

Overview of ice scarp locations on Mars

In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of eight cliffs with visible exposed ice layers in the high mid-latitudes of Mars. At the time, those eight ice scarps were limited to a single crater in the northern hemisphere (Milankovic Crater) and a strip of land in the southern highlands at around latitude 55 degrees south.

In the past two years scientists have been using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor these scarps for changes. So far they have seen none, likely because the changes are below the resolution of the camera.

They have also been able to find more scarps in the southern hemisphere strip beyond that strip at 55 degrees south.

Now they have found more scarps in the northern hemisphere as well, and these are outside Milankovic Crater. As in the south, the new scarps are still all along a latitude strip at about 55 degrees.

The map above shows with the black dots the newer scarps located in the past two years. The scarp to the east of Milankovic Crater is typical of all the other scarps, a steep, pole-facing cliff that seems to be retreating away from the pole..

The scarp to the west of Milankovic Crater is striking in that it is actually a cluster of scarps, all inside a crater in the northern lowland plains. Moreover, these scarps are more indistinct, making them more difficult to identify. According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
» Read more

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Remnant moraine on Mars

Remnant moraine on Mars
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Cool image time! Using both Martian orbiters and rovers scientists are increasingly convinced that Mars has lots of buried glaciers in its mid-latitudes. These glaciers are presently either inactive or shrinking, their water ice sublimating away as gas, either escaping into space or transporting to the colder poles.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows some apparent proof of this process. Taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 23, 2019, it shows a weird meandering ridge crossing the floor of a crater. The north and south parts of the crater rim are just beyond the cropped image, so that the gullied slope in the image’s lower left is actually a slope coming down from that rim.

My first reaction upon seeing this image was how much that ridge reminded me of the strange rimstone dams you often find on cave floors, formed when calcite in the water condenses out at the edge of the pond and begins to build up a dam over time.

This Martian ridge was certainly not formed by this process. To get a more accurate explanation, I contacted Dan Berman, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who had requested this image. He explained:
» Read more

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Martian dust devil!

Martian dust devil!
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Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera today posted a new captioned image, cropped by me to the right to post here, showing an active Martian dust devil as it moves across the surface of Mars.

Dust devils are rotating columns of dust that form around low-pressure air pockets, and are common on both Earth and Mars. This Martian dust devil formed on the dust-covered, volcanic plains of Amazonis Planitia. The dust devil is bright, and its core is roughly 50 meters across. The dark streak on the ground behind the dust devil is its shadow. The length of the shadow suggests the plume of rotating dust rises about 650 meters into the atmosphere!

That’s about 2,100 feet tall, almost a half mile in height. The location, Amazonis Planitia, is part of the northern lowlands of Mars, flat and somewhat featureless. It is also somewhat near the region near Erebus Montes that is the candidate landing site for SpaceX’s Starship rocket, a region that appears to have a lot of ice just below the surface.

The science team also linked to a 2012 active dust devil image that was even more spectacular. I have also posted on Behind the Black a number of other dust devil images, highlighting this very active, dramatic, and somewhat mysterious aspect of the Martian surface:
» Read more

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A bullseye on Mars

Bullseye crater on Mars
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on November 30, 2019. It shows a lone crater on the flat northern lowlands of Mars in a region dubbed Arcadia Planitia.

The crater is intriguing because of its concentric ridges and central pit. As this region is known to have a great deal of subsurface water ice, close to the surface, these features were probably caused at impact. My guess is that the ice quickly melted, formed the kind circular ripples you see when you toss a pebble in a pond, but then quickly refroze again, in place.

This location is also of interest in that is it just north of the region that SpaceX considers the prime candidate landing site for its Starship manned spaceship.

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The cliff at the end of Chasma Boreale on Mars

The cliff at the end of Chasma Boreale
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Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on November 15, 2019 during the height of the Martian summer in the northern hemisphere. It shows the scarp of the polar ice cap, looking directly down that scarp at what the MRO image post dubs an “exposure of basal unit”, or the bottom of the cap itself. This suggests that the base of that cliff is no longer ice, but the bedrock below it. If this cliff is similar to other scarps off the polar ice cap it should be at least 1,600 feet tall. It might be more, however, as the elevation difference between the cap and the floor of this basin is estimated by scientists to be more than a mile total.

This scarp however is different than the outer icecap scarps where avalanches occur with great frequency during the spring and summer. Instead, it is located in the heart of the ice cap, at the very end of the gigantic canyon Chasma Boreale that slashes a deep cut into that ice cap, practically cutting it in half.

Overview

The overview map on the right, with the red dot showing where this image is located, illustrates the cutting nature of Chasma Boreale. The canyon itself is 350 miles long with a width of about 75 miles at its beginning and with walls that at some points rising a mile in height.

Scientists theorize this canyon was formed by melting ice from cap that built up at the cap’s base, causing erosion and collapse, with the flow following the grade down hill from this end point out to the lowland plains beyond. It is also possible winds played a part in this process, encouraging the canyon formation.

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Frozen lava that flowed from Elysium Mons

Lava flows off of Elysium Mons
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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 (MRO) on October 27, 2019. It shows a dramatic lava flow coming off the flanks of the giant volcano Elysium Mons, a flow that has probably been frozen in place for somewhere between 600 million to 3.4 billion years.

If you look close you can see several craters on top of the lava flow. To my eye these impacts look like they occurred when the lava was still soft, which suggests they were debris thrown up by the volcano. This however would be surprising, as the eruption of Elysium Mons is not thought to have been explosive, but slow and steady. Either way, these crater impacts are one of the ways scientists have been able to estimate the age of this volcano and its long frozen flows.

MRO has taken a scattering of high resolution images in this area, all of which are aimed at similar frozen flows coming off the volcano. All are about 250 miles from the caldera, which gives you a sense of the size and extent of Elysium Mons. While it is the fourth largest volcano on Mars at 7.5 miles high, its grade is so gentle that if you were standing on the surface the peak would be hard to see from any point.

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How to spot a glacier on Mars

A glacier on Mars
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Overview map

The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today posted a nice lesson on what features to look for when you are trying to find glaciers on Mars.

To do this they used one of the earliest images of a Martian glacier, taken by MRO on June 12, 2008. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that entire glacier, coming off a mesa in the chaos terrain region of Protonilus Mensae, a region of mesas and glaciers that I highlighted in an earlier post in December, showing images of a mesa that had numerous glaciers flowing down from all sides.

The overview map to the right shows the location of both that earlier glacier-surrounded mesa (the red dot in Protonilus Mensae) and today’s image (the blue dot).

What the MRO science team has done with the image today however is to use it to illustrate the most important geological features that one will see when looking at a Martian glacier.
» Read more

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A Martian avalanche: before and after

A Martian avalanche: before and after
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Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a beautiful blink animation showing the before and after terrain at an avalanche site along the scarp of Mars’s north pole ice cap.

The animation is very cool, but it is also helpful to align the two images next to each other to carefully study what actually changed. The image to the right, cropped and reduced here, shows both photos. (Thank you to planetary scientist Shane Byrne for splitting the animation for me.). I have added the white bars to indicate the cliff section that broke off during the avalanche. That section was made of water ice, with probably some dust and rocks mixed in, and broke into the blocks that are now scattered on the ground below.

This avalanche itself is actually not unusual and as I noted in an earlier post, is part of an annual season of numerous avalanches that occur on this northern scarp of the polar ice cap each spring. As written by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

Every spring the sun shines on the side of the stack of layers at the North Pole of Mars known as the north polar layered deposits. The warmth destabilizes the ice and blocks break loose. When they reach the bottom of the more than 500 meter tall cliff face [about 1,600 feet], the blocks kick up a cloud of dust.

And as Byrne noted to me in an interview when I asked him how it was possible for MRO to image so many avalanches, as they occur,

“It is incredible. I think this is the most incredible thing about the whole process.” said Byrne. “If you fly over a mountain range on the Earth and take a picture, the chances catching an avalanche in progress are almost zero. But on Mars half of the images we take in the right season contain an avalanche. There’s one image that has four avalanches going off simultaneously at different parts of the scarp. There must be hundreds to thousands of these events each day.”

In an email exchange with him today, he also added that this is not the first before and after comparison images obtained. “We’ve been seeing these blockfalls for several years now. That’s partly why these scarps are being so intensively monitored by HiRISE.”

Do these avalanches mean that the Martian northern polar ice cap is shrinking? Maybe, maybe not. Right now scientists think the cap is in a steady state, neither growing or shrinking. These events are thus more likely comparable to the routine calving of ice sections from the foots of glaciers here on Earth, a common tourist destination in the waters of western Alaskan coast.

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Strange parallel grooves in Martian crater floor

Parallell ridges and ruts in Martian crater floor
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Full crater view
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Cool image time! The image above, cropped to post here, was taken on December 2, 2019 by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of a crater in the northern lowlands of Mars. It focuses in on the strange lineated ruts and ridges found on the crater’s central floor, as indicated by the black box on the wide shot to the right.

The north-south alignment of these groves suggests to me that they are wind caused, as if dust and sand had ponded in the crater’s lowest point and was then shaped by the prevalent winds. They also appear solid and old, as if this shaping occurred a long time ago and they are now decaying with time.

This location is at the same latitude as the plains around Erebus Montes, the prime candidate landing site for SpaceX’s Starship, and a region where a lot of shallow subsurface ice has been detected. It lies due west of that region, separated by the north-south Phlegra Montes mountain chain. At this latitude, 36 degrees north, scientists have found ample evidence of water ice, though some regions have more than others. This crater sits on the edge of this particular rich area, which might explain why the crater looks more solid and dry than others at similar latitudes. There simply might be less ice here, or the ice lies deeper below the surface.

I am off with Diane on a hike this morning, so this cool image fills in for my normal morning news posting. I should catch up this afternoon.

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More Martian pimples

More pimples on Mars
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In a captioned image release last week from the science team of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), planetary scientist Alfred McEwen describes a string of mounds aligned and deformed by a fissue.

The image, cropped and reduced to post here, is to the right. As McEwen notes,

A possible geologic interpretation is that as the rift began to open, subsurface material (perhaps mud) erupted to create the mounds, which were then deformed as the rift continued to spread.

Located in Chryse Planitia, the region of the northern lowland plains just north of the outlet from Valles Marineris, these mounds and their probable geological origin seem very similar to the pimple mounds I highlighted in a cool image only last week. The only difference is that the earlier posted pimples were not aligned with any obvious fissure or rift.

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Inexplicable ridges on Mars

Inexplicable ridges on Mars
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Don’t ask me to explain the geology on today’s cool image, rotated, cropped and reduced above. Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 16, 2019, the image’s uncaptioned website merely calls these “Convergent and Overlapping Narrow Curved Ridges.”

I don’t know why the sand in the hollows appears light blue, or even if it is sand. I don’t know what created the ridges, or why they seem to overlap each other randomly, or why they seem to peter out to the south.

I am sure there are planetary scientists out there who have theories that might explain these features. I also know that they would forgive me if I remained skeptical of those theories. This geology is a puzzle.

Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars

The location of these ridges is in the southeast corner of Hellas Basin, which I like to call the basement of Mars as it is the equivalent of the United States’ Death Valley, having the lowest relative elevation on the planet. As I have noted previously, the geology in this basin can be very strange. To my eye it often invokes a feeling that we are looking at Mars’s “uttermost foundation of stone” (to quote Tolkien), frozen lava that flowed in many ways and then froze in strange patterns.

Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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The beginning of chaos on Mars

The beginning of a chaos canyon
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019. In one image it encapsulates the process that forms one of the more intriguing and major Martian geological features, dubbed chaos terrain.

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.

This image shows the beginning of this process. It is centered on a fault line running from south to north. In the south all we can see is the fault expressing itself as a very shallow small depression in the plains. As we move north the depression widens and deepens. The material inside the depression near the top of the photo could very well be a buried inactive ice glacier. Several million years ago, when the inclination of Mars was much higher and the mid-latitudes were much colder than the poles, the water ice at the poles was sublimating from the poles to those mid-latitudes where it fell as snow. At that time this glacier was likely active, helping to grind out this canyon.

The image was taken at the south border of a chaos region dubbed Nilosytis Mensae, as shown by the overview maps below.
» Read more

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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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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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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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