Bringing life to the slumping lifeless slopes of Mars

Slumping slopes on Mars
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To me, the cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, helps illustrate the most significant difference between Mars and Earth, its obvious lack of life. This lack fundamentally changes the nature of erosion on the Red Planet.

On Earth life covers practically every square foot of the surface, and that life probably does more than anything to reshape the surface, and it does it far more quickly than any geological or meteorological process. For example, even if we are in the most lifeless area of the Sahara Desert, with no plant life, the dunes will still be reshaped and changed simply by the passage of any animal, whether it be a lizard, camel, or human driving a jeep.

On Mars, there is no visible life, and this lack means that any changes we see are solely geological or meteorological in nature. From a scientist’s perspective, the view is clean, all changes wrought solely by inanimate nature, without the added factor of life.

In a sense, Mars gives us a view of what geological and meteorological processes would do on Earth, if the Earth was lifeless.

Today’s image, taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 29, 2020, exemplifies this. Labeled “Slope Failures in Tempe Terra,” it shows the slow break-up and slumping of debris as it oh-so-slowly falls from higher terrain. The cracks developed as large chunks pulled apart as the material slide downward to the east.

This cracking took a lot of time. On Earth, during that time it would have either been obscured by plant life, or would have been distorted greatly by the traffic of animal life across its surface. Animals would have dug holes, and humans might have reshaped it to build homes and roads. On Mars, none of that happened, so the geology was free to evolve slowly, without interference, and now sits in plain view for scientists to interpret.

Such knowledge will over time strengthen our understanding of Earth geology, because it will give us a better understanding of the influences of life on that geology. Geologists will be better able to separate the influence of life and inanimate natural processes.

The overview map below helps give the wider context of those Martian inanimate natural processes, on a grand planetary scale.
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“Flow-like” feature in the Martian lowlands


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

This is an uncaptioned image, labeled by the MRO science team as a “Flow-Like Feature in Chryse Planitia,” suggesting that they themselves are not exactly sure about what we are looking at. The latitude is 19 degrees north, which is a bit too far south for finding glacial features. Moreover, the craggy look of the ground here does not suggest an eroding glacier, but of eroding bedrock.

We could be looking at a volcanic feature, but this location is very far from Mars’ volcano regions. Nonetheless, another high resolution image, taken just to the west of this photo and given the exact same label, shows similar geology, and does strongly invoke a look of corroded lava flow.

The overview map below gives the context.
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Was there a catastrophic flood in Kasei Valles on Mars?

Overview map of lower section of Kasei Valles

Figure from paper

In our on-going exploration of Mars using the amazing high resolutions being taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), we return today to Kasei Valles, the drainage valley coming down from Mars’ giant volcanoes that I featured only a few days ago. And like that post, we must begin from afar and zoom in to understand what we are seeing in the final cool image.

Kasei Valles is a canyon system is about 1,900 miles long, and would cover two-thirds of the continental United States if placed on Earth. Its north-trending upstream section to the west and south of the area shown on the overview map to the right is thought to have been formed by some combination of glacial and volcanic processes. The downstream west-east section shown in the map instead appears to have been formed by a sudden catastrophic flood, which some scientists have theorized [pdf] occurred when a three hundred long ice dam broke suddenly, releasing the flood quickly across this terrain to create its features. The second map to the right, from their paper, illustrates this hypothesized event.

The white box in 60-mile wide Sharonov Crater near the center of the first map above indicates the location of today’s cool image below. The 1976 landing site of VIking 1 about 420 miles to the east is also indicated.

If you look closely at the first overview map above you can see that the rim of Sharonov Crater appears breached in its southwest quadrant, just to the west of the white box. This breach is less a break and more an area of increased erosion. Regardless, it sure appears that a massive flow pushed through the rim here.
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The edge of Martian chaos

Overview map of end of Kasei Valles

For today’s cool image, we are going to start from afar and zoom in, because I think that might be the best way to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of the strange geology visible at this one particular Martian location.

The first image, to the right, is the overview map. The red cross indicates our target, a chaotic canyon that flows into the larger Kasai Valles, one of Mars’ largest and longest canyons and possibly only exceeded in size by Valles Marineris. This part of Kasai is near its end, where it drains out into the vast northern lowland plains of Mars.

The second image, below, comes from the wide angle camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
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Fingerprints on Mars!

Fingerprint terrain on the Martian south pole icecap
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No, today’s cool image is not a variation of the absurd “face on Mars” that our alien-obssessed fantasy culture focused on for more than twenty years that turned out to be nothing more than a mesa whose shadows in one image made it look very vaguely like a face.

Instead, today’s cool image is of a very weird Martian geological feature that strongly resembles the whorls and curls seen in all fingerprints, and is thus apply named “Fingerprint Terrain.”

The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on August 26, 2020. It shows part of the surface of Mars’ south pole residual icecap, about 130 miles from the south pole, at a place where the temporary thin dry ice mantle that arrives every winter with the bulk of it sublimating away with the coming of spring.

The fingerprint in this image shows that sublimation process, with the gaps in dry ice mantle getting wider and larger as you move north, until the ridges between disappear altogether.

But why does it look as it does, like a fingerprint? In other places this sublimation process does not look like this at all. Sometimes we get spiderlike formations. Sometimes we get splatters that suggest geysers. Sometimes the surface sublimates to produce swiss cheese shapes. But why a fingerprint here?

I asked this question of Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who had requested this particular image, hoping he and other planetary scientists had investigated this geology and come up with an explanation. His answer illustrates how little we yet know about Mars.

It’s almost definitely some sort of sublimation process, but it hasn’t been well investigated. There are some papers that talk about sublimation landforms on the cap in general and map out where different types are, but nothing that I know that’s specific to the fingerprint terrain.

In other words, why the dry ice cap sublimates away in this manner, at this and other locations, remains unexplained.

I’ll say it again: Mars is strange, Mars is alien, and Mars is therefore a place humans must go.

A massive Martian glacier that looks just like a glacier on Earth

Massive glacier on Mars
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If you ever had any doubt about the existence of glaciers on Mars, today’s cool image should ease those doubts. The photo to the right, taken on August 27, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows many features that are appear identical to features found on typical massive glaciers on Earth.

Downhill is to the northwest. The many parallel grooves or fractures running along the length of the glacier resemble what are seen in many similar Earth glaciers. Some of these fractures are caused by the glaciers slow drift downward, with different sections moving at slightly different rates, thus causing a separation along the flow. Hence the parallel fractures.

These fractures also show evidence of some erosion. Because these Martian glaciers are no longer getting more snowfall, they are no longer growing. However, if the thin layer of dust and debris that protects the ice gets blown off or removed by motion, the ice is exposed and can then sublimate into gas so that the glacier erodes.

On the flow’s edges the darker parallel lines also resemble features seen on Earth, showing the exposed layers of the glacier’s past levels. The same thing can be seen on either side of the canyon’s walls.

The wide smooth section near the center of the parallel lines could very well be an impact crater that landed on this glacier sometime in the far past, and has since been distorted in shape as the glacier flowed downward.

If you still have doubts, the context image below, taken by MRO’s wide angle context camera, should help further allay those doubts.
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More Martian pits!

Pit #1
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Pit #2
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Though the number of new pictures showing pits and possible caves from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has significantly tailed off in the past year, as I noted in my previous post on Martian pits in September, the pictures are still rolling in. This post will highlight five new photos and the pits therein.

The first two, on the right, are both located on the southern flanks of the giant volcano Arsia Mons, where many such pits are found. They were taken respectively on August 16, 2020 and August 27, 2020. The first was a captioned image from MRO’s science team:

In this image, the ceiling of the lava tube collapsed in one spot and made this pit crater. The pit is about 50 meters (150 feet) across, so it’s likely that the underground tube is also at least this big (much bigger than similar caves on the Earth). HiRISE can’t see inside these steep pits because it’s always late afternoon when we pass overhead and the inside is shadowed at that time of day.

What I find most interesting about both images is that the skylights do not occur where you’d expect. In image #1, the meandering rill that suggests an underground lava tube is about 1,000 feet south of the pit. The pit itself seems unrelated to that rill. In image #2, the surface shows no obvious evidence of an underground tube matching the three aligned pits. There is the hint of a narrow depression along the alignment of the three pits, but this could just as easily be evidence of wind-blown dust along that alignment.

In the full image all three pits appear to sit inside a very wide and very shallow northwest-to-southwest depression, but this is hardly certain, and regardless the three pits align in a different direction.

The overview map below provides some context.
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A typical mid-latitude Martian crater with glacial features

Typical mid-latitude Martian crater with glacial fill
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Cool image time! The crater on the right, the image cropped and reduced to post here, is a great example of many craters scientists have found in the mid-latitudes on Mars containing a variety of features that suggest buried glaciers. In this case we are looking at what they have dubbed a concentric crater fill, material that resembles glacial material that fills the crater’s interior and floor, and appears often to erode in a series of rings. You can see another example here.

The photo was taken on June 29, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The crater itself is located in a region of chaos terrain dubbed Nilosyrtis Mensae, located in the transition zone between the cratered southern highlands and the lowland northern plains.

Nilosyrtis Mensae is part of a region of Mars I call glacier country. When you include the mensae regions Protonilus and Deuteronilus to the west, this transition zone of random mesas, knobs, and criss-crossing canyons stretches about 2,000 miles. The context map below focuses in on Nilosyrtis Mensae, where this crater is located.
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Cliffs of Martian ice

southern hemisphere Martian ice scarp
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Today’s cool image to the right, cropped to post here, shows an ice scarp located in the high southern latitudes south of Hellas Basin. It was taken on August 15, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and was released today as a captioned image. From the caption:

Scientists have come to realize that, just below the surface, about one third of Mars is covered in ice. We study this ice to learn about Mars’ ancient climate and astronauts’ future water supplies.

Sometimes we see the buried ice because cliffs form like the one in this image. On the brownish, dusty cliff wall, the faint light-blue-colored ice shows through. [emphasis mine]

This ice scarp is one of about two dozen [pdf] that have so far been found within the latitude bands of approximately 45 to 65 degrees latitude in both the north and south hemispheres. The data so far obtained suggests that the scarp exists because of a pure water ice layer just below the surface. Over time this pole-facing cliff retreats away from the pole towards the equator, leaving behind it an extended pit. In the cliff wall scientists think they have detected evidence of that water ice layer.

Blue in MRO hi-res images can indicate both water as well as very rough surfaces. While much of the blue here could be ether, the blocky cracks suggest it is ice. As explained by Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona and lead author of the pdf above,

The crack patterns are likely thermal contraction cracks, which form in shallowly buried ice due to seasonal temperature changes causing it to expand and contract. When that repeats over many years it creates regular patterns of cracks that organize themselves into polygons.

The overview image below gives the location of all known such scarps, as of March of 2020, taken from the pdf paper that I linked to above.
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Criss-crossing Martian ridges hit by new impacts

Criss-crossing Martian ridges hit by new impacts
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The image to the right, cropped to post here, is a captioned photo from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance orbiter and released today. From the caption:

The black spots [recent impacts] form because the craters exposed cleaner materials in the subsurface beneath the bright, dusty surface.

Our image is also interesting because the surface has a criss-cross pattern formed by wind activity. Bright ripples that are oriented from the upper right to the lower left are perpendicular to the wind flow. In contrast, outcrops that have been eroded by the wind are oriented perpendicular to the ripples to produce the criss-cross pattern we now observe.

The overview map below might also help explain this criss-cross pattern.
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On the rim of Mars’ Grand Canyon

The rim of Valles Marineris
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Cool image time! Mars has many grand geological features that will surely attract tourists in the far future, when the planet has been successfully colonized and humans live there with the same ease that we today live in what was the New World wilderness several hundred years ago.

Of those features, none probably compare with Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the solar system. When compared to it, the Grand Canyon — at about a mile deep, about ten miles wide, and about 280 miles long — is a mere pothole, hardly noticeable. Valles Marineris averages a depth of five miles, a width of 370 miles, and a length of 1,900 miles. You could fit many Grand Canyons within it.

The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on July 13, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows only a tiny section of this gigantic canyon’s rim. At this spot the depth from rim to floor is about 4.3 miles, or about 22,700 feet. In the image itself I estimate the cliff at the rim to be somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 feet high, more than the depth of the entire Grand Canyon. And that’s only this top cliff.

The three overview maps below show the context of this location within Valles Marineris.
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Big scallops in the Martian southern latitudes

Big scallops on Mars
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows an example of some large scalloped depressions in the high southern latitudes of Mars.

Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on June 27, 2020, these scallops resemble in many ways the ice scarps that scientists have previously found at this same latitude, both to the east and west of where these scallops are located. With those scarps, the data suggests that a very pure layer of ice is visible in the cliff face, and that over time the cliff retreats northward due to sublimation of that ice.

The scallops in the photo to the right suggest the same process, though the differences raise questions. As explained by Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
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Martian channels formed by water? by ice? by lava?

Meandering channels on Mars
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Many of the pictures from Mars show meandering channels, all of which suggest an erosion process related to some form of flow. For most of the last half century, since the first images of these channels were beamed back by Mariner 9 in 1972, scientists had believed that liquid water must have caused them. The accumulating recent photos from Mars now tentatively suggest that these channels might have instead been caused by glacial processes, creeping frozen water instead of liquid.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on July 17, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The channels suggest some form of flow going downhill to the northwest, but was it caused by water or ice? There is no obvious visual evidence of glaciers in this image, nor is there any such evidence that I can spot in any of the nearby high resolution images of this same region, despite the fact that at 35 degrees north latitude it is in the mid-latitude band where scientists have identified many glacial features.

The region itself is called Mareotis Fossae, an area of southwest-to-northeast trending parallel fissures and ridges, as shown in the two overview maps below.
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An ice-covered mountain on Mars?

Ice-covered mountain on Mars?
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Grinnell Crater in Glacier National Park in 2017

Today’s cool image, taken on July 1, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is of a mound-like mountain on Mars that to all intents and purposes appears covered by glacial ice, some eroded, some not.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows this mound. Both the flow coming down from the mountain top down the north slope as well as the flow in the north that appears to begin in a small crater suggest glacial features.

Even more convincing are what appear to be patches of glacial ice on the southern slopes, resembling the kind of glacial patches you see everywhere in Glacial National Park. The second photo to the right, taken by me on our visit to Glacier National Park in 2017, shows similar patches hugging the mountainside at Grinnell Glacier.

This Martian mountain is located in the southern hemisphere inside Hellas Basin on its eastern interior rim. (See the overview map below, with the location of this photo the small white box south of Harmakhis Valles.) Thus, you would expect the north-facing slope to get more sunlight (and more heat) than the south-facing slopes. Yet, from this image there appears to be greater erosion on the south-facing slopes. A puzzle indeed.
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Corroding glacier in crater rim gully?

Gully in crater rim
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Today’s cool image to the right, rotated and cropped to post here, shows a gully flowing down the north facing rim of a 30-mile-wide crater in the southern cratered highlands. It was taken on June 30, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

To my eye the corroded ridges and pits running down the western side of this gully look like a corroded ice, as if we are looking at a glacier that the light of the Sun, which in the southern hemisphere hits this north-facing slope more directly and for longer periods of time, is causing it to sublimate away with time.

The wider shot below shows the entire rim, flowing downhill from the south to the north.
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A patch of chaos in the Martian cratered southern highlands

A patch of chaos in the southern cratered highlands of Mars
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Today’s cool image, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, takes us to the cratered southern highlands of Mars. Taken by the context wide angle camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this image shows us a strange isolated patch of what appears to be chaos terrain, which on Mars generally means an area of random knobs and mesas cut by canyons and channels.

The large bulk of chaos terrain on Mars is found near or in the transition zone between the lowland northern plains and the southern cratered highlands, and is thought to have been created by slow erosion, possibly by glaciers. This erosion process is aided by the gradient downhill from those highlands to the lowlands.

This location however is in the middle of the cratered highlands, and shows no obvious slope in any direction. And though the location is in the mid-southern latitudes, there is no obvious evidence of glaciers among these knobs and mesas. Furthermore, the mesas are not all the same height. Instead, a large portion appear to have been shaved off, as if some giant came in with a putty knife and scrapped away at them.

This can be clearly seen by the close-up below, taken by MRO’s high resolution camera on July 16, 2002 of the area indicated by the white box, which for scale is about 2 1/4 miles square.
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Martian channels within Martian channels

Channels within channels on Mars
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Whatever caused the meandering canyons on Mars, whether glaciers or liquid water, it was a process that was long-lived and multi-staged, as indicated by today’s cool image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here. This photo, taken on June 28, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), shows a large canyon cutting downward from a high ridgeline to the north. As that canyon begins to flow out out of the mountains and into the plains to the south, a secondary inner channel appears, meandering down the center of the larger canyon.

This canyon is located at 35 degrees south latitude, in the mid-latitude region where scientists have found evidence of a lot of glaciers. In fact, there are some hints of eroded glacial material in the small channels to the west of this main canyon. Also, there appear to be patches of corroding glacial ice on the south-facing slopes of the east and west hills that define the main channel. In the canyon itself however there appear to be few if any glacial-type features.

The overview map below gives the location context.
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Martian crater filled with lava

Lava filled Martian crater
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Cool image time! Unlike most of the recent images I’ve posted from Mars, today’s has nothing glacial about it. Instead, the photo to the right, cropped to post here, shows us a crater where lava broke through the southern rim to fill its interior.

The picture was taken on July 15, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The crater is located within what I call volcano country on Mars, just inside the Athabasca Valles lava field, what some scientists believe [pdf] is the youngest lava field on Mars, estimated have occurred less than 600 million years ago.

The overview map below provides context.

Overview map

The tiny white box south of Elysium Mons indicates the location of this crater. The dark blue areas indicate the extent of the Athabasca lava field. The Medusae Fossae Formation is the largest volcanic ash deposit on Mars.

The Athabasca lava field is about the size of Great Britain, and is thought to have been laid down in only a matter of a few weeks. When it spread it clearly reached this crater, the lava pushing through to fill it. If you look at the full image you can see that the north-trending lava flow even continued past the crater a considerable distance on both sides, the crater acting like a big rock in a stream, blocking the flow.

Since this happened more than half a billion years ago, a lot of erosion has occurred, mostly between the crater’s rim and the edge of the ponded but now solidified lava.

The frozen and changing mid-latitudes of Mars

Glacial erosion on Mars
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Using “frozen” and “changing” to describe any single location might seem contradictory, but when it comes to the mid-latitudes of Mars, high resolution images keep telling us that both often apply, at the same time and at the same place.

The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, is a typical example. Taken on May 8, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it shows what the scientists label as “mesas and ridges.” Drainage is to the south, and it sure looks like some sort of glacial flow is working its way downward within the canyons between those mesas.

Overall the terrain has the appearance of a frozen ice sheet, or at least terrain that has a shallow ice table close to the surface. It also looks like chaos terrain in its infancy, the erosion process not yet cutting down enough to make the mesas stand out fully.

The location of these mesas and ridges is shown in the context map below, which also shows that this location is at the same latitude as SpaceX’s Starship prime Martian landing site, and only about 400 to 500 miles to the east.
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The alien Red Planet and the scientific method

Spiders, dunes, and strange terrain in high latitude southern Martian crater
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As a child growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and an avid reader of science fiction, I was constantly presented with stories about Mars and what people imagined it was like. At the time no spacecraft had as yet gotten a close look at the planet, so the theories of a desert planet, with many canals built by an alien race attempting to stave off death as the planet’s water disappeared, were still considered possible. So were theories that the changing colors across its surface seen seasonally in ground-based telescopes suggested the possibility of some form of lichen-like life that came and went with the seasons.

None of those fantasies have turned out to be true. All attempted to create an alien planet in the model of Earth, and thus were guaranteed to get it wrong. After a half century of increasingly sophisticated research, we now know a bit more about what Mars is like, and have learned that it is much stranger than we had imagined, an icy world quite possibly shaped by slowly shifting glaciers and ice sheets, creating surface features in ways so alien from what we are familiar with on Earth that even now scientists struggle to figure those processes out.

The photo above and to the right, taken on May 25, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), is a perfect example. At first glance it fits what I call a “what the heck?” image. Without knowing more, it is impossible to figure out what we see here.

The wider image below, taken by context camera on MRO, provides our first clue.
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Sharp Martian ridges sticking up from the dust

Sharp ridges sticking up from Martian dust
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Today’s cool image brings us back to the region of Mars where the rover Opportunity journeyed. Taken on June 25, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance orbiter (MRO), the photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, focuses on some sharp but low ridges that appear to stick up out of the Martian dust, hinting that they are the tops of some larger feature buried over the eons and only now revealed partly by recent erosion. I estimate that their height is roughly one to two hundred feet or so.

This image is in Arabia Terra, the widest and largest transitional zone region between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands. It is also only about 200 miles north of where Opportunity landed, and about 230 miles from where it died after almost fifteen years of operation, on the west rim of Endeavour Crater. The overview map below gives the context.
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A Martian starburst spider

A Martian starburst spider
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped to post here, illustrates an example of a wholly unique Martian phenomenon, that is not only unique to Mars but is also found only in its south polar regions. The image was taken on July 17, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

What we are looking at is a permanent spider formation etched into the layered deposits of ice and dirt that cover the widest area surrounding Mars’ south pole. The blue dot just north of Chasma Australe on the overview map below shows the location of these starbursts, on those layered deposits.

Each winter the poles of Mars are blanketed with a thin mantle of dry ice, generally less than six feet thick. When spring arrives and sunlight hits this mantle, it heats the ice and sand on which the mantle lies, and that warmth causes the mantle’s base to sublimate back into gas. Eventually gas pressure causes the mantle to crack at its weak points so the gas can escape. By the time summer arrives that mantle is entirely gone, all of it returning to the atmosphere as CO2 gas.

This sublimation process differs between the north and south pole, due to the different terrain found at each. In the north the mantle mostly lies on ice or sand dunes, neither of which is stable over repeated years. Thus, the mantle weak points do not occur at the exact same place each year, even though they occur at the same type of locations, such as the base and crests of dunes.
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Another pit on Mars!

Isolated small pit on Mars
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It has been several months since my last Martian pit update, mostly caused by the lack of new pit images coming down from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). I think this lack is not because of a lack of additional pits or caves but instead signals the completion of a first high resolution survey of the known pits so far found on Mars. A full list of all past pit updates can be found at the bottom of this post.

Regardless, the image to the right, cropped to post here, is the only such image in months, taken on April 14, 2020, and shows a small isolated pit in the lava slopes between the giant volcanoes Arsia and Pavonis Mons. In the full photograph you can see how isolated is this pit. To the limits of the image there are no other such features, the terrain a relatively smooth plain with only some small ridges and and a scattering of what seem to be partly obscured or eroded small craters.

The overview below map shows this pit’s relationship to the volcanoes as well as to all other known nearby pits.
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Strange glacial flow features on Mars?

Flow features in Reull Vallis
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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 May 26, 2020, and shows what the scientists dub “Flow features in Reull Vallis.”

These features are typical in the mid-latitudes, and once again suggest the presence of buried glacial ice. The two lobes on the left and right both evoke such flows, as does the material in the drainage channel near the top of the photo.

What is more intriguing however are the strange features in the box. Below is that section, at full resolution.
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The icy Erebus Mountains near where Starship will land on Mars

Overview of all SpaceX images in Arcadia Planitia

Glacial filled crater in Erebus Montes
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It has been several months since I posted any new photos of the region on Mars which SpaceX considers its prime candidate landing site for its Starship spacecraft/rocket, now under development. The map to the right shows the location of all the images that SpaceX has obtained from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of this landing region, located in the northern lowland plains at the border between Arcadia and Amazonis and to the east of the Erebus Mountains. (See my post on November 13, 2019 for an analysis of the reasoning for SpaceX to choose this region, along with links to each of the numbered images.)

Time to take another look, this time at the very center of the southern cluster of the Erebus mountains. The crater to the right, its location indicated by the tiny red rectangle on the map above, was taken by MRO on May 6, 2020, and shows the typical glacial features scientists find in mid-latitude Martian craters. The floor appears filled with glacial material, with the repeated cyclical flows repeatedly coming down off the north-facing interior rim. That rim would generally be colder and get less sunlight, so snowfall is more likely to pile up there and then flow downward like a glacier, only to sublimate away once it moves out of shadow.

What makes these mountains enticing, only about 400 miles from the Starship landing zone, is not simply what is inside this crater, but what surrounds it. Below is the wider view provided by MRO’s context camera.
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Bright-tipped perplexing terrain on Mars

Perplexing terrain on Mars
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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 June 24, 2020, and shows a bit of inexplicable country in Arabia Terra, the widest and largest transition zone region on Mars between the northern lowland plains and southern cratered highlands.

The stuff visible in this image falls into what I call “What the heck?” geology. It is very clear we are looking at a collection of straight and curved ridges and mesas, all of which for some reason are bright at their tips and edges. Some of the curved ridges might be the rims of craters, but only some. Other ridge lines look more like leftovers following a strange erosion process. The problem is that to my uneducated eye I can find little rhyme or reason to these shapes. The mesas and canyon on the image’s right edge might be explained by the erosion processes that create chaos terrain on Mars, but that process does not do a good job of explaining anything else in the photo.

That this uncaptioned image is merely labeled “Arabia Terra” suggests that the scientists involved in getting this image were equally perplexed by it, and could not give it a better description.

The overview map below provides some location context, including how this geology relates to the landing site of Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover, now scheduled for a 2022 launch.
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The longest lava tube in the solar system?

A lava tube on Mars
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Before I delve into today’s cool image, I think it important to explain to my readers why I seem to post so many cool images from Mars. The simple explanation is that Mars right now is where almost all the cutting edge planetary research is taking place, and as a science journalist focused on space exploration I must go to that cutting edge. My dear readers know that I love variety (just consider the evening pauses on Behind the Black), but you can’t ignore the reporting of real discoveries simply to increase the diversity of one’s posts. This is too often what modern news outlets do, which is also why they often miss the real story.

Anyway, today’s cool image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows only a small section of what might be the longest lava tube in the entire solar system. Taken on May 5, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it shows a string of pits along a meandering depression coming down the northwest flank of the giant volcano Arsia Mons. The image was a follow-up to a July 2014 photo of the same location, and was taken to produce a stereo pair.

The feature strongly suggests a lava tube, with the pits being skylights into the meandering underground void. From top to bottom this section of the tube is a little over three miles long. Since there are lava tubes on Earth far longer, this one image hardly makes this the longest tube in the solar system.

The tube, however, extends off the image both at the bottom and at the top. Not many high resolution images have been taken in this area, so it is therefore hard to say how far the tube extends. Other nearby high resolution images in this area however have found similar lava tubes, which conceivably could be part of the same tube. The overview map below shows the relationship.
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A collapsed Martian crater in a glacier?

Collapsed crater in glacier?
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Today’s cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is another example of evidence that the mid-latitudes of Mars are covered with glaciers and ice. The photo, taken on April 25, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), shows many of the squashed and blobby features found in these mid-latitudes.

What makes the image even more interesting is the small crater in the center of the larger crater. The floor of that larger crater seems filled with glacial fill, and it appears that when that smaller impact occurred it caused the nearby surrounding fill to collapse downward, producing the oblong off-center depression. At least that’s my uneducated guess, which I admit could easily be wrong.

Even if my hypothesis is wrong, the visual evidence here supports the theory that this region, dubbed Deuteronilus Mensae, has lots of buried ice glaciers. Consider for example the distorted crater to the southwest of the big crater. It sure looks like at some point it was heated suddenly, maybe by the impact of the main crater, so that its rim was warped and reshaped, in the manner that ice would be warped and reshaped by sudden heat. Moreover, all the craters in full image appear to have glacial fill.

The overview map below adds weight to this conclusion.
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Revisiting Mars’ glacier country

Glacial cracks or pits on Mars
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With today’s cool image we return to what I have labeled glacier country on Mars, though this time the image shows a Martian glacial feature that while resembling vaguely such features seen on Earth, has an alienness to it that requires some explanation.

The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on March 24, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The section I have focused on is the floor of a depression with a number of parallel pits, more or less aligned with the packed north-south ridges that cover the entire floor.

Normally, the north-south ridges would suggest repeated glacial flows moving to either the west or to the east. Such movement could over time, cause the ridges to separate, creating the cracks or pits that we see here. The trouble is that the slope of this depression is very unclear. In fact, the wider view below shows that this depression appears mostly enclosed, or if not it does not seem to be flowing in any particular direction.
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Cracks and scallops on the lowland plains of Mars

Utopia Basin cracks and scallops
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Cool image time! To the right is some of the strange terrain seen in the northern lowland plains of Mars. The photo, cropped to post here, was taken on May 4, 2020 by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of an area in the northwest part of Utopia Planitia.

Next year China’s first attempt to soft land a rover on Mars will occur somewhere in Utopia Planitia. Utopia Planitia, also called Utopia Basin, is quite large, however, and in fact is the largest recognizable impact basin on Mars, with a diameter of more than 2,000 miles or about two thirds the width of the United States. If this strange spot was put near Seattle, Tianwen-1 is expected to touch down somewhere near Houston, Texas.

The MRO science team labeled the image “Scalloped terrain in Utopia Planitia.” The curved cliffs in the image illustrate those scallops, found frequently in Utopia. Their formation is believed related to the sublimation of underground ice, changing directly from ice to gas. The theories of this process however are somewhat uncertain at this time.

What stuck me about the image were the north-south oriented cracks. They extend through the full image, all oriented in the same direction. I haven’t the faintest idea what caused them, but they are intriguing, are they not?

This terrain is also different than most Utopia Planitia images I have previously posted. Most look squishy and blobby and distorted, suggesting the presence of soft slush and underground ice. This image instead suggests hard bedrock, even though it is farther north than the previous images and should thus be expected to have more ice underground. Quite mysterious.

I suspect the ice is here, but is simply not made obvious by any surface event. Then again, who knows? The geology of Mars is definitely not obvious, no matter how obvious it sometimes seems.

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