Tag Archives: MRO

A crack in the Martian crust

Crack in the Martian crust
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Cerberus Fossae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Martian pits, filled and unfilled!

Pit in Ceraunius Fossae
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Overview of Ceraunius Fossae

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s second pit is of an entire different nature.
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Mid-latitude Martian glacier?

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

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

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

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

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

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Unearthly pit in Martian northern icecap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent impact on Mars
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Cool image time! While finding recent impacts on Mars is not that unusual, the image to the right, found among the November image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), was dramatic enough that I decided that more people besides planetary scientists should see it. For scale the photograph is exactly 500 meters wide.

The photograph, taken September 26, 2019, also illustrates all the typical aspects of impact craters, and how they change the landscape.

This impact took place sometime between July 17, 2012 and January 4, 2018. We know this because it wasn’t there in a low-resolution image taken by the wide angle survey camera on MRO on the first date but was there when that same camera took another picture on the second date. Below is a side-by-side comparison of that July 17, 2012 image with the high resolution 2019 image above.
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A journey into the depths of Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris

Cool image time! Rather than start with the cool image, let’s begin with the long view. To the right is a wide mosaic of Valles Marineris on Mars, the largest known canyon in the solar system. About 2,500 miles long and 400 miles wide, this canyon is so large that it would cover most of the United States if put on Earth. The Grand Canyon, 500 miles long by 19 miles wide, could easily fit within it and not be noticed. In depth Valles Marineris is equally impressive, with a depth of more than four miles, about four times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

A closer view of the central regions of Valles Marineris

The white cross in the mosaic above is where we are heading. You can see it as the white box in the zoomed in overview to the right. This central part of Valles Marineris is named East Melas Chasma, and the red boxes indicate locations where the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has already taken images.

As you can see, we do not yet have many high resolution images of this part of the canyon floor. The white box is the most recent image, and is the subject of today’s post.
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Polygons on Mars

Scallops and polygons on Mars
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Cool image time! The photograph on the right, cropped to post here, was taken on September 25, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and made public in its November image release. It shows the weird but very typical scalloped terrain, with its adjacent polygon pattern of fractures, found routinely in the northern lowland plains of Utopia Planitia on Mars. From an earlier captioned image from 2006 of these same features:

The scalloped depressions are typical features; a smooth layered terrain located between 40 and 60 degrees in both hemispheres. Scalloped depressions probably form by removal of ice-rich subsurface material by sublimation (ice transforming directly from a solid to a gaseous state), a process that may still be active today. Isolated scalloped depressions generally have a steep pole-facing scarp and a gentler equator-facing slope. This asymmetry is interpreted as being the result of difference in solar heating. Scalloped depressions may coalesce, leading to the formation of large areas of pitted terrain.

The polygonal pattern of fractures resembles permafrost polygons that form in terrestrial polar and high alpine regions by seasonal-to-annual contraction of the permafrost (permanently frozen ground). On Earth, such polygons indicate the presence of ground ice.

On Earth these polygons are most often seen in mud, usually suggesting a drying process where the ground contracts with the lose of fluid. On Mars the cracks probably also form from contraction, but not by the lose of fluid but the lose of water ice as it sublimates into a gas.

These polygons and scallops illustrate an important feature of Mars’ vast northern plains. On large scales these plains appear flat and featureless. Up close however many many strange features, like the polygons and scallops in this image, come into view.
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Mars’ seasonally vanishing carbon dioxide polar cap

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
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Since the onset of the Martian spring in the northern hemisphere back in March of this year, scientists have been busy using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor the expected sublimation and disappearance of the cap of dry ice that falls as snow to become a winter layer mantling both the more permanent icecap of water 7,000 feet deep as well as the giant dune sand seas that surround that northern icecap.

The image on the right was first posted here on Behind the Black on June 6, 2019 as part of a long article describing that northern polar icecap and its annual evolution. It shows a set of dunes that Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who requested the image, has dubbed “Buzzell.” When that picture was taken in March, the frozen dry ice layer of translucent carbon dioxide still coated the dunes. The image’s darkness is because the Sun has just begun to rise above the horizon at this very high latitude location (84 degrees). The circular feature is likely a buried ancient crater, with the streaks indicating the prevailing wind direction blowing both sand and frost about.

On August 9, 2019 I provided an update on this monitoring, when new images of this same location were downloaded from MRO in April and June. MRO has now taken a new image of Buzzell, on October 2, 2019. Below the fold are all these images so that you can see the sublimation and disappearance of that dry ice layer over time.
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Lava-draped terrain on Mars

Lava surrounding hill and partly covering crater
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Hill surrounded by lava flows
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Cool image time! Continuing this week’s series of lava-related images from Mars (previous posts here, here, and here), today’s post is ironically the first to actually show lava flows.

The two images to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, are sections taken from an uncaptioned picture, titled “Lava-Draped Surface in Cerberus Palus” and found in the most recent download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

It is obvious why the MRO scientists gave this image this title. The hills in both pictures clearly seem to stand up like islands in a surrounding sea of frozen lava. Older craters, created prior to the lava flow, are partly obscured by the lava flows, their interior floors filled and their rims broken as the lava flooded this region.

Nor are these the only high points captured in the image that this flood of lava inundated. If you look at the full image there is even a low mound where it appears the surrounding lava flood worked its way up the hill’s gently sloping flanks only to freeze just before it completely covered the top of the mound.

The location of this image, shown by the red box in the overview map below and to the right, gives us a hint where the lava came from, though the distances involved to the nearest giant volcano, Elysium Mons, are so large it is likely that this flow is not directly linked to that volcano.
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Sinkholes on Mars

Collapse pit on Mars
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Cool image time! In this week’s exploration of Martian geology that is reminiscent of Earth-based lava geology, today’s image is of a collapse pit in Ceraunius Fossae, the vast region of north-south fissures found to the south of the volcano Alba Mons. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, zooms in on that pit.

The picture was part of the most recent image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). What makes it especially interesting is the sharpness of its rim, in comparison to the collapse channel to the east. This suggests the pit is younger and fresher than the channel, and happened more recently. This also implies that the voids below the ground in which the surface is sinking are either still there, or due to on-going processes might be still be forming (like caves are on Earth).

For example, if there is underground ice, temperature changes or even thermal heat from the nearby giant volcanoes could melt that underground ice periodically, allowing it to flow and erode the surrounding material, forming voids. That this pit is located at 30 degrees north latitude, just inside the northern hemisphere band where glaciers are found, adds weight to this possibility.

The image below, reduced and rotated so that north is to the left, shows the entire sequence of collapse channels, with the more distinct pit from above in the bottom center of the picture.
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A discontinuous Martian channel

Discontinuous channel near Olympica Fossae
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Close-up of channel

Time for more strange Martian geology! As I said in my post yesterday of a cool image of skylights into what might be a Martian lava tube, this is lava week on Behind the Black. The image at the right, rotated, reduced, and cropped to post here, is similar to yesterday’s photograph, showing a line of sinks and depressions that strongly suggest the existence of an underground lava tube.

The problem with this theory is that at present we really have no idea what flowed here. It could have been lava, but it also could have been mud, water, ice, or some as yet unimagined Martian geological process.

The image was part of the most recent image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and was uncaptioned. The top image shows the whole channel as captured by the photograph, with the white box indicating the area covered by the second image, posted here at full resolution.

Though the overall slope of the terrain here is downhill to the west, the grade is relatively shallow, so there is no guarantee that the local slope of this particular channel follows that trend. Downhill could be either to the west or the east.

The reason I favor lava (as an amateur geologist) is the location of this channel, as shown in the overview map below and to the right.
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Skylights into Martian lava tube?

Possibly connected skylights into lava tube
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Close-up of skylights
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Cool image time! In the archive of images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) I came across the uncaptioned image on the right, dubbed “Possibly Connected Lava Tube Skylight Pair in Tharsis Region.”

The top image, cropped and reduced to post here, is a wide view, showing a narrow depression oriented in a north-south direction. Downhill is to the north, with the caldera of the giant volcano Arsia Mons to the south. The white box indicates the area covered by the bottom image, cropped and expanded to post here. Within this close-up are two dark spots, each about 150 feet across.

The two dark spots surely look like small pit openings. Their alignment with the north-south depression strongly suggests that an underground lava tube is below. That this depression is also aligned with the downhill slope further reinforces this supposition.

The depression itself also aligns with the gigantic fault that runs from the northeast to the southwest through all three of the giant Tharsis Bulge volcanoes. Arsia Mons is the southernmost of the three. It is also where that fault is most clearly expressed by two dramatic breaks in the volcano’s rim in the northeast and southwest, as seen in the overview image below. Scientists have taken of lot of images of these breaks in an effort to better understand the geology and how it fits in with the formation of the volcanoes.

Overview of Arsia Mons

However, a review of the entire image archive of MRO’s high resolution camera shows that scientists have taken very few close-up images in this region. The black box in the overview map on the right is the location of this image. As of now, only three other high resolution images, as indicated by the white boxes, have been taken by MRO of this part of the volcano’s north slope.

That the skylights and depression align with this giant fault is not evidence that this supposed lava tube is linked to that fault. Lava will flow down the mountain’s slopes, fault or no fault. At the same time, the fault’s existence is also going to encourage north-south cracks and fissures, which in turn could have served as a convenient flow route for the lava. Without a closer look, on site, it is hard to know one way or the other..

I’ve located a few more lava related cool images in the MRO archive, so I’m going to make this week lava week on Behind the Black. Stay tuned!

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Ice! Ice! Everywhere on Mars ice!

Ice scarp in Milankovic Crater
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In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of exposed ice in a number scarp cliff faces found in the high-mid-latitudes of Mars.

These scarps, which have so far been found in one southern 50-55 degree latitude strip and in one crater, Milankovic, at the same latitude in the north, are important because they are one of the first places on Mars in its lower latitudes where we have found ice actually exposed and visible, not buried like the many buried glaciers very near the surface found in the 30 to 60 degree northern and southern latitude bands.

Since that press announcement, scientists have been monitoring these sites for changes, as well as expanding their survey to see if they can locate more of these scarps.

Overview map

My previous posts on this subject were mostly focused on that southern strip near Hellas Basin, as shown on the map on the right. In reviewing the most recent image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I noticed that the only new images of ice scarps were taken in the northern location, in Milankovic Crater, as indicated by the white dot north of Olympus Mons. The first image above shows the north-facing scarp of one of these images, cropped to focus in on the color section where, if you look close, you will see a strip of blue across the base of the scarp. That’s the ice layer, exposed as the scarp sublimates away over time from the north to the south.

over view of all MRO images taken so far in Milankovic Crater

This scarp, labeled #2 on the overview map of Milankovic Crater on the right, is located inside the crater’s eastern rim. The second image, posted below and labeled #1 on the overview map, shows a wider area of several ice scarps located on the inside of the crater’s southwestern rim.

The red boxes in the overview map indicate all the images taken by MRO inside this crater. If you go to the camera’s archive and focus in on Milankovic Crater at 54.5 degrees north latitude and 213.3 degrees longitude, you can then click on each red box to see the high resolution image. In practically every image along the crater’s inside rim can be found numerous scarps.
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Swirls and layers in Martian depression

Close-up on swirls and layers

Context of depressions in Columbus Crater
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Cool image time! The southern highlands of Mars is littered with numerous craters, making it look from a distance not unlike the Moon. A closer inspection of each crater and feature, however has consistently revealed a much more complex history than seen on the Moon, with the origins of many features often difficult to explain.

The two images on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows one such feature in the floor of one southern highlands crater, dubbed Columbus Crater. The top image is a close-up of the area shown by the box in the bottom image.

The uncaptioned full photograph was taken on May 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was simply titled “Depression in Columbus Crater.” Since the photo included two large depressions, as shown in the wider view in the bottom image, I’m not sure which depression this title refers. In both cases the features do not appear to be impact craters. The top depression is far too irregular, while both do not have the upraised rims that are found on most impact craters.

I have zoomed into the top depression because of its many swirls and layers. On Earth such terrain is usually caused by either water or wind erosion, slowly carving a smooth path across multiple geological layers. Here, there is no obvious evidence of any flows in any direction. Something ate out the material in this depression, exposing the many layers, but what is not clear.

The lower depression reminds me of sinkholes on Earth, where the ground is subsiding into a void below ground The same process could have also formed the top depression.

The surrounding terrain is equally baffling, resembling the eroded surface of an ice block that has been sprayed with warm water. In fact, the entire floor of Columbus Crater appears to have intrigued planetary scientists, as they have requested a lot of images of it from MRO. So far they do not have enough of these images to produce a full map. Since the terrain appears to change drastically over short distances, it is therefore hard to fit the geology of each image together. The overall context is missing.

When I first saw this image I tried to reach the scientist who requested it in the hope he might provide me a more nuanced explanation of what we see here, but despite repeated requests he never responded. Therefore let me propose one theory, based on my limited knowledge of Martian geology.
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Weird glacial features in Martian crater

weird glacial feature in crater on Mars
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Cool image time! In reviewing today’s October release of new images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the strange geology shown in the image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here.

The uncaptioned image calls these “glacial features within crater.” The crater is located at 35 degrees north latitude in Arabia Terra, one of the more extensive regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It is also located within the northern band from 30 to 60 degrees latitude where most of the buried Martian glaciers are found.

The most abundant type of buried glaciers are called concentric crater fill (CCF) because they are found inside craters, and often show decay in a concentric manner. This weird feature likely falls into that category, though I would hardly call these glacier features concentric.

I’m not even sure if this is an impact crater. If it is, its rim has been heavily obscured, making it look instead like an irregular depression with one outlet to the south. In fact, I suspect it is possibly one of the lakes that scientists believe pepper this part of Arabia Terra and might have contained liquid water two to three billion years ago. That water would have later frozen, and possibly become covered by dust and debris to protect it.

According to present theories, Mars is presently in a period where its mid-latitude glaciers are shrinking, the water sublimating away and being transported back to its poles. The weird formations here suggest this process. Imagine what happens when you spray warm water on a big block of ice. It dissolves, but randomly to form weird shapes.

In this case the glacier is shrinking randomly where the ice has gotten exposed. In the thin Martian atmosphere, it transitions directly from a solid to a gas, sublimating into the atmosphere to leave these inexplicable shapes.

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The slowly changing dunes of Mars

Map of Mars

In order to better understand the climate and geology of Mars, scientists need to study how the thin Martian atmosphere causes changes to the planet’s numerous sand dunes. To do this, they have been using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to periodically snap photos of the same places repeatedly over time, to track any changes that might occur.

Recently the monthly download dump of images from MRO included one such location in the northwest quadrant of Hellas Basin, what I call the basement of Mars because it the planet’s lowest point. The uncaptioned image was taken on May 20, 2019 and was titled “Hellas Region Sand Dune Changes.” A review of past images shows that MRO has taken pictures of this location several times in the past, in 2011 and in 2017. All these images were taken during the Martian autumn season, and were taken to see if over time there were any significant changes to the dunes due to winds.

My superficial comparison of the 2011 and 2017 images does not show much obvious change. There could be small changes that my quick review did not spot, and there is also the strong possibility that the entire dune field could have shifted as a unit over those three Martian years, a change that would require a more detailed analysis beyond my technical capabilities. Click on both links, put the photographs in separate tabs, and switch quickly between them to see if you can spot any differences.

Comparing the 2011 and 2019 images however shows some significant changes, most of which I think are due to the 2018 global dust storm. Below is that comparison.
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Martian impact into lava crust?

Impact crater north of Pavonis Mons
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on April 23, 2019. It shows a quite intriguing impact crater on the northern lava slopes of Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in the chain of three gigantic volcanoes to the west of Valles Marineris.

What makes this image cool is what the impact did when it hit. Note the circular depression just outside the crater’s rim. In the southeast quadrant that ring also includes a number of additional parallel and concentric depressions. Beyond the depression ground appears mottled, almost like splashed mud.

What could have caused this circular depression? Our first clue comes from the crater’s location, as shown in the overview map below and to the right.
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Tongue-shaped glaciers on Mars

Tongue-shaped glacier on Mars
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Cool image time! I could also call this another example of mass wasting, which it appears to be according to my understanding of Martian geological processes. However, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team dubbed this image “Tongue-Shaped Glaciers in Centauri Montes,” and I have no right to disagree with them.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and brightened to post here, shows the most prominent tongue-shaped glacier in the full image. The two curved ridges to the south of the glacier’s tip are almost certainly old moraines of debris pushed there during earlier events, when the glacier material extended farther out. In fact, if you look close you can see that this tongue lies on top of a larger older tongue that lines up with the closer of these two ridges.

This feature is located at 37 degrees south latitude, which puts it inside Mars’s southern glacial band that extends from 30 to 60 degrees latitude. According to the present defined types of Martian glaciers, this tongue is what scientists have dubbed a lobate debris apron, a glacier that in many ways resembles glaciers we see on Earth.

The location of this feature is especially interesting, especially because other images have found that it is not unique to this region.
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Cave pits in the Martian northern lowlands

New pits in Hephaestus Planitia

I could call this my monthly Martian Pit update. Since November 2018 I have each month found from two to five new and interesting cave pits in the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). My previous posts:

All except the last August 12 post were for pits on the flanks of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the line of three giant volcanoes to the southeast of Olympus Mons, and were thus almost certainly resulting from lava flows.

The August 12 post instead showed pits found in Utopia Planitia, one of the large plains that comprise the Martian northern lowlands where scientists think an intermittent ocean might have once existed. All of these pits are found in a region of meandering canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae.

In the most recent MRO release scientists once again focused on the pits in or near Hephaetus, imaging four pits, two of which have been imaged previously, as shown in my August post and labeled #2 and #4 in this article, and two (here and here) that appear new. The image on the right, cropped to post here, shows the two new pits, dubbed #1 and #3. In the full image of #1, it is clear that this pit lines up nicely with some other less prominent depressions, suggesting an underground cave. Pit #3 however is more puzzling. In the full image, this pit actually runs perpendicular to a long depression to the west. There are also no other related features around it.

What makes all four of these pits intriguing is their relationship to Hephaestus Fossae and a neighboring rill-like canyon dubbed Hebrus Valles, as shown in the overview map below.
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Avalanche season at the Martian north pole

Avalanche on-going at the edge of Mars' north pole icecap
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As the Martian spring started to unfold in April 2019, the focus of many Martian planetary scientists immediately shifted to the northern polar icecap, where they fully expected, based on previous experience, some spectacular events to occur.

I have already reported on this year’s initial observations of the sublimation of the carbon dioxide frost layer. That frost layer, generally less than six feet thick, falls as dry ice snow with the coming of winter, then sublimates away each spring. Since the arrival of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006 and its discovery of this process by its high resolution camera, these scientists have been monitoring the disappearance of that frost layer from Martian year to Martian year.

That sublimation process also brings with it other spectacular changes, including the coming of frequent avalanches along the high cliff scarps, ranging in heights from 1,500 to 3,000 feet, that comprise the edge of that north pole icecap. The image above, reduced to post here, shows one of the many avalanches found this spring and photographed as they were actually happening. It looks down at the cliff that runs from the left to the lower right of the image, with its top being the flat plateau in the lower left. From the caption, 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. (In the cutout, the top layer of the north polar cap is to the lower left.) The layers beneath are different colors and textures depending on the amount of dust mixed with ice.

The linear many-layered look of that cliff face is due to the many layers believed to exist within the permanent water icecap of Mars. To give some perspective, this cliff is several hundred taller than the World Trade Center after completion. Those falling blocks are dropping farther than the bodies that horribly fell from the Trade Center the day it was hit by airplanes flown by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.

The map below shows most of the eastern half of that icecap, with the white boxes showing the various places MRO has spotted such avalanches.
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Taking a look back at a Martian pit

Pavonis Mons pit
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The pit to the right could almost be considered the first “cool image” on Behind the Black. It was first posted on June 20, 2011. Though I had already posted a number of very interesting images, this appears to be the first that I specifically labeled as “cool.”

The image, taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), had been requested by a seventh grade Mars student team at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, and shows a pit on the southeastern flank of the volcano Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in Mars’ well-known chain of three giant volcanoes. A close look at the shadowed area with the exposure cranked up suggests that this pit does not open up into a more extensive lava tube.

What inspired me to repost this image today was the release of a new image from Mars Odyssey of this pit and the surrounding terrain, taken on July 31, 2019 and shown below to the right.
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Terraced and banded hills on Mars

Banded or terraced hills in eastern Hellas
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Cool image time! In my review of the most recent download of images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) the high resolution camera, I found a very startling (and cool) image of some dramatic terraced Martian hills, taken on July 30, 2019. I wanted to post it here, but decided to first do some more digging, and found that an earlier image, taken in 2017, showed more of this particular hill. It is this earlier image posted to the right, cropped and reduced.

Don’t ask me to explain the geology that caused this hill to look as it does. I can provide some basic knowledge, but the details and better theories will have to come from the scientists who are studying this feature (who unfortunately did not respond to my request for further information).

What I can do is lay out what is known about this location, as indicated by the red box in the overview map below and to the right, and let my readers come up with their own theories. The odds of anyone being right might not be great, but it will be fun for everyone to speculate.
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Mars’ mysterious slope streaks become even more mysterious

Bright slope streaks in Arabia Terra
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Mars is an alien planet. This fact needs to be restated over and over, because we humans have an uncontrolled and unconscious tendency to view the things we find on Mars and assume they are caused by and resemble phenomenon we see all the time here on Earth.

Not. Mars has a very different climate, a significantly weaker gravitational field (about one third of Earth’s), and a geological and environmental make-up very alien from Earth’s. While many phenomenon there might have parallels on Earth, it is very dangerous to assume they are the same, because more often than not, they are exceedingly dissimilar and mysterious.

The image on the right is another example of this, reduced and cropped to post here. It is of some slope streaks in the Arabia Terra region on Mars, the largest most extensive region in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern highlands. I found it in my review of the August 30th release of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

As I already noted in my previous article about the mysterious slope streaks of Mars:

The bottom line, as noted in one paper, “The processes that form slope streaks remain obscure. No proposed mechanism readily accounts for all of their observed characteristics and peculiarities.”

Mars is strange. Mars is alien. Mars epitomizes the universe in all its glory.

The image above only reinforces this conclusion.
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Cliff collapse on Mars

Cliff collapse on Mars
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Cool image time! The photograph to the left, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was found in the August image release of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

This was an uncaptioned image, with a title “Cataract and Grooves in Kasei Valles.” Kasei Valles is the giant canyon north of Marineris Valles. Though it is not as well known or maybe as dramatic, it is about as long and vast as its more famous southern canyon. It also has some very intriguing features, including what I consider to so far be the pit on Mars with the highest priority for exploration.

The image on the right shows the result when a giant section of this cliff face broke off and collapsed into the canyon. It also shows that the collapse occurred a long time ago. Not only are there newer craters on the collapse debris, the breakdown at the cliff base looks well eroded, as if many eons have passed since it piled up there.

When this section broke off however it was a very big event. The width of the collapse is about a mile across, with its depth about 600 feet. The height of the cliff is approximately 3000 feet, give or take a few hundred feet. Thus the chunk that broke off was about 600 feet wide, 5,000 feet long, and about 3,000 feet high. That’s one very big rock.

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Melting rocks on Mars

Melt pools near Mohave Crater
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Cool image time! The image to the right, reduced, cropped, and annotated by me to post here, was part of the July image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was titled “Melt Pools around Mojave Crater”.

You can see that the flow began to the south, flowed northward (in the middle of the image), and then pooled in the two places as indicated. In the full photograph you can also see that the flow continued to the north, forming more pools.

The title to me suggests that this flow and the melt pools were lava, not ice. The low latitude, 7 degrees north, also suggests this is not ice. Though I was unable to reach the person who requested these images, it appears his research is aimed understanding the melt events that occur in the vicinity of craters upon impact. From his website:
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An eroding Martian glacier?

An eroded glacier on Mars?

Close-up of an eroded glacier on Mars?
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Cool image time! In my never-ending review of new images downloaded each month from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came upon an image dubbed merely “Terrain Sample” in the August release. To the right, cropped and rotated to post here, is the weird terrain from that image, with the section in the white box shown below at full resolution.

To keep MRO functioning properly, they need to take images on a regular basis, even if they have no planned features coming into view. As noted by Singleton Thibodeaux-Yost, the HiRISE Targeting Specialist at the University of Arizona who requested this image,

It was not taken in response to a suggestion from the public or our team database. This image was a ride-along with another instrument on MRO. [The scientists for that other instrument] targeted this region for a particular reason and we just turned on our camera as well to gather more data while they collected their data. I title these types of images “terrain sample” as we don’t always know what the results will be.

In other words, the scientists running the high resolution camera have no inkling what they will see until see it.

This image shows the inside rim of a crater, with the crater rim to the south just beyond the image’s bottom edge. This somewhat large crater is located in the middle of Arabia Terra, one of the largest regions of the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands (where some scientists believe an intermittent ocean might have once existed). This transition zone has many features that suggest a tidal basin on the edge of that ocean.

A few months ago I would have been entirely baffled by what we see here. I might have speculated that these strange features were another variation of that shoreline region. Maybe these features are the erosion one sees on a dried lakebed after the water has drained away.

I might have also speculated that these shapes looked like the kind of frozen ice blocks one sees in the icecap of the Arctic here on Earth.

Both speculations then would have been complete guesses.

I now know, based on things I have recently learned in writing about several other images from MRO, that the second guess is likely right (though of course my opinion as a very amateur planetary geologist should not be taken very seriously). My reasons?
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Monitoring Martian pits not near Arsia Mons

Second look at Hephaestus Fossae pit
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In reviewing the August image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came upon two different new pit images, the more interesting of which is highlighted on the right, cropped to post here..

Finding new pit images from MRO isn’t surprising, since the spacecraft has been photographing pits almost monthly since November (see: November 12, 2018, January 30, 2019, February 22, 2019, April 2, 2019, May 7, 2019, and July 1, 2019).

What makes these two new pit images more intriguing are their location, and the fact that both pits were previously photographed by MRO and posted on Behind the Black on June 5, 2018 and July 24, 2018. Both are located in Hephaestus Fossae, a region of fissures on the edge of the great Martian northern lowlands to the west of the great volcano Elysium Mons.

Almost all the pits from past MRO images have been found on the slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the three giant volcanoes southeast of Olympus Mons. In fact, last month I even asked the question, “Why so many pits there, and so few pits elsewhere?” The explanation from Chris Okubo of the U.S. Geological Survey, who is requesting these images, was that maybe it was due to geology, or maybe it was because we simply do not yet have enough information and might not have identified the many caves/pits elsewhere.

It appears that this same question had already been on the minds of Okubo and his partner, Glen Cushing, also of the USGS. As Okubo wrote me when I asked him about these new images:
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Watching the yearly vanishing of Mars’ north pole dry icecap

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
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Buzzel dunes, April 4, 2019
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Buzzell dunes, June 4, 2019
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For the northern hemisphere of Mars it is presently spring. The season began sometime in April 2019 and will last until about October, twice as long as on Earth because of the Martian year is twice as long.

During the fall and winter the permanent water-icecap, which forms the bulk of the Martian icecap, gets covered by a mantle of dry ice, settling there as a layer of carbon dioxide snow about six feet thick. With the arrival of spring that dry icecap slowly begins sublimate away entirely.

Using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) planetary scientists are monitoring this process, taking pictures periodically.

On June 6, 2019 I had written a detailed story describing the Martian North Pole and outlining the process by which this sublimation of the dry icecap mantle takes place.

When winter ends and the sun reappears at this Arctic location, a small percentage of that sunlight, about 10%, goes through the dry ice and warms the sand that the dry ice mantles. This in turn warms the bottom of the dry ice layer, causing this to sublimate into a gas that is now trapped.

When the pressure builds sufficiently, that gas breaks free at the weakest spots in the dry ice layer, which are either at the dune crest or at its base, or sometimes on its face where cracks form. When it does so the CO2 gas carries with it material from below, which appears dark relative to the bright dry ice on the surface. As the summer season progresses and more dry ice sublimates away, the dark smudges disappear as they slowly blend in with the now-exposed original sand surface.

The first two pictures to the right were posted in that June 6, 2019 story, showing the initial evidence of sublimation on a set of dunes that the scientists have dubbed Buzzell. Below these, I have now added the newest image of the Buzzell dunes, taken on June 4, 2019 and just released in the August MRO image dump.

When this third image was taken, spring was only about two months old. Yet, this sublimation process is clearly accelerating. You can see many more dark patches at the crests and bases of many dunes, especially in the upper left of the image. According to Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who is requesting these monitoring images, by sometime in October “you’ll see how the entire spring progresses from dunes completely covered with dry ice to the summer when they are just bare sand. Then you could comment on the whole spring series.”

I fully intend to do this. No harm however in providing an interim report or two. Stay tuned to Behind the Black for future on-going and up-to-date reports on the shrinking north pole dry icecap of Mars!

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