Tag Archives: MRO

Amazing layers

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

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

Overview map

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

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More pits found on Mars

Pit near Hephaestus Fossae
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Overview map

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

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

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

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

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

The overall terrain in this region, including these pits, the fissures, and the many aligned depressions, strongly suggests a lot of underground voids. As I noted in 2019:
» Read more

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A shadowed ice patch on Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The edge of an eroded buried Martian glacier

The edge of an eroded buried Maritian glacier
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Overview

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

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

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

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

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The blobby wettish flows of Mars

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

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

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

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

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

The overall location provides some further context.
» Read more

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A relaxed crater on Mars

A relaxed crater on Mars
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows what the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) call a “Relaxed Crater.” This particular image was taken in July 2014. A more recent photo was taken in March 2020 to create a stereo pair, but because this older image shows more of the crater I decided to highlight it.

The crater is considered relaxed because it is very shallow and appears as if, after impact, some process caused the interior to in-fill with material even as the rim became less pronounced and degraded (as explained in this paper [pdf]). The process could have involved either molten magma or melted ice. As this crater is located in the northern highlands to the southwest of Erebus Mountains, in a region that research has consistently suggested has a great deal of ice just below the surface, the latter seems likely. This assumption is further reinforced in that the crater is also located in the mid-latitudes where scientists have found a lot of craters they think are filled with buried glaciers. This certainly seems the case here.
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The eroding edge of Mars’ largest volcanic ash field

Eroding yardangs at the edge of Mars' largest volcanic ash field
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Cool image time! In the regions between the biggest volcanoes on Mars is the Medusae Fossae Formation, a immense deposit of volcanic ash that extends across as much surface area as the nation of India. As planetary scientist Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University explained to me previously,

In general, much of the [formation] seems to be in net erosion now, retaining very few craters on the surface. …One hypothesis is that this long term erosion, since it’s so enormous, is the primary source of the dust we see covering the much of the planet’s surface.

The image above, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 25, 2020. It shows one very small area at the very edge of the Medusae ash deposit, in a region where that deposit is clearly being eroding away by the prevailing southeast-to-northwest winds. The mesas of this ash that remain are called yardangs, their ash more tightly pressed together so that it resists erosion a bit longer than the surrounding material.

In the context map below the location of these yardangs is indicated by the white cross, right on the edge of the Medusae ash field.
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The edge of Mars’ north polar ice cap

The scarp face of the Martian north polar ice cap
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on December 29, 2019 by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows the many-layered scarp face of the Martian north polar ice cap. I have also rotated the image so that north is at the top. The overall height of this scarp is quite high, more than 3,500 feet.

There are a number of very cool features in this image. For example, note what at first look like puffs of clouds just below the contact between the bright and dark layers. I count almost two dozen, with the largest near the center. They are not cloud puffs, however, but areas scoured by past avalanches. According to Patricio Becerra at the University of Bern in Switzerland,

An image from a few years ago shows evidence for the same patches, so they likely happened a while back. When the avalanches or “block falls” occur, they scour the Basal Unit [the dark layer] and break up the exposed surface, causing a brighter/cloudier appearance of the ground than the undisturbed parts.

Avalanches on the scarps of the North Pole icecap occur in great numbers at the beginning of every Martian summer. As sunlight hits the scarp, it causes the carbon dioxide frost layer that settled on the cap during the winter to sublimate away as vapor, and like the freeze-melt cycle on Earth, this sublimation disturbs any unstable ice boulders on the scarp face.

During the early Martian summer, images from MRO routinely capture many such avalanches. Scientists think there could be hundreds to thousands every summer. In many ways, this is similar to the large pieces of ice that routinely calf off the foot of glaciers here on Earth, and that tourists take cruise ships to see in the inside passage of Alaska.

For context, the overview map below indicates with a gold cross where on the icecap’s edge this image is located. The red and pink areas indicate the vast dune fields that surround the icecap.
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A Martian lava flood plain

A Martian lava flood plain?
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Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on March 2, 2020, and shows some inexplicable shallow pits and depressions in the middle of a relatively flat and featureless plain.

Make sure you click on the image to see the full photo. Though the plain looks remarkably smooth, a handful of dark splotches are scattered about, almost all of which occur on top of small craters.

What causes these depressions? The MRO team calls this “Landforms near Cerberus Tholi.” Cereberus Tholi is a a collection of several indistinct and relatively small humps that scientists think might be shield volcanoes.

More clues come from the overall context.
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Stucco on Mars

Stucco on Mars
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As a break from Wuhan flu madness I give you another cool image, cropped and reduced to post here, taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). I call this stucco on Mars because that is exactly what it looks like. It is as someone laid down a layer of damp concrete and then ran over it roughly with a trowel to raise the knobs scattered across the surface.

The uncaptioned MRO image calls this “Aligned Mounds with Broad Summit Pits”. Those aligned mounds run across the top of the image. I suspect they are pedestal craters, left over because the impact had packed and hardened the crater so that it resisted erosion as the surrounding terrain was worn away.

The two insets, posted below at full resolutoin, focus on one of those pedestal craters as well as the distinct mesa at the bottom of the photo.
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Rock droplets hitting a Martian plain

Depressions in Amazonis Planitia
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Cool image time! The photo the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, is not only cool, it contains a punchline. It was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 11, 2020 and shows one small area between two regions in the northern lowlands of Mars, dubbed Amazonia Planitia (to the south) and Arcadia Planitia (to the north) respectively.

This region is thought to have a lot of water ice just below the surface., so much in fact that Donna Viola of the University of Arizona has said, “I think you could dig anywhere to get your water ice.”

I think this image illustrates this fact nicely. Assuming the numerous depressions seen here were caused by impacts, either primary or secondary, it appears that when they hit the ground the heat of that impact was able to immediately melt a wide circular area. My guess is that an underwater ice table immediately turned to gas so that the dusty material mantling the surface then sagged, creating these wider circular depressions.

Of course, this is merely an off-the-cuff theory, and not to be taken too seriously. Other processes having nothing to do with impacts could explain what we see. For example, vents at the center of these craters might have allowed the underground ice to sublimate away, thus allowing the surface to sag.

So what’s the punchline?
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Strange terrain in the Martian lowlands

Strange terrain in northern lowlands
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Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) yesterday released a new captioned image, entitled “Disrupted Sediments in Acidalia Planitia”, noting that the photo

…shows a pitted, blocky surface, but also more unusually, it has contorted, irregular features.

Although there are impact craters in this area, some of the features … are too irregular to be relic impact craters or river channels. One possibility is that sedimentary layers have been warped from below to create these patterns. The freezing and thawing of subsurface ice is a mechanism that could have caused this.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows the lower quarter of the full image. While in some areas it does appear as if changes below the surface caused the surface to warp and collapse, as suggested by the caption, in other places it looks more like the top layers themselves sublimated away without disturbing what was below them.

Note for example the pits near the bottom of the photograph. They clearly show sedimentary layers on their cliff walls, including the tiny circular mesa in the middle of the rightmost pit.

If these pits were collapsing from below, their cliffs would be more disturbed, because it would have been those lower layers that sublimated first. Instead, it appears that the top layer disappeared first, followed by each lower layer, one by one.

This region of strange terrain is located in the middle of the northern lowland plains. The overview map below gives some context, with the small white box showing this photo’s location.
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Baby Martian volcanoes

Cratered cone near Noctis Fossae
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Cool image time! I came across this strange feature shown on the right in my normal rummaging through the archive of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The photo, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, focuses on what they label a “cratered cone.”

The immediate thought is that this is a volcano cone, and the craters at its peak are not impact craters but calderas. In science however such a knee-jerk conclusion is always dangerous. For example, this might instead be a pedestal crater, where the surrounding terrain was worn away over eons, leaving the crater sitting high and dry.

It is therefore important to look deeper to determine what origin of this feature might be.

First, its location, as shown in the overview map below, provides us our first clue.
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Seasonal avalanches in Martian dune gully

Seasonal changes in Martian dune gully
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The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a very cool pair of images, taken a Martian year apart, showing some significant changes that had occurred during that time in a large sand dune slope inside a crater. On the right is that pair, reduced and with the top image slightly lightened to bring out the features. As they wrote in the caption,

One large gully in particular has had major changes in every Martian winter since [MRO’s high resolution camera] began monitoring, triggered by the seasonal dry ice frost that accumulates each year.

This time there was an especially large change, depositing a huge mass of sand. The sand divided into many small toes near its end, or perhaps many individual flows descended near the same spot. Additionally, a long sinuous ridge of sand was deposited. This could be a “levee” that formed along one side of a flow, but there is not much sand past the end of the ridge, so it might also be the main body of a flow.

Nor is this dune gully the only active one in this crater, dubbed Matara Crater, located in the southern cratered highlands at about 50 degrees south latitude. If you look at the full image and compare it with an image from 2009 there are many changes across the entire slope field that extends a considerable distance to the north and south of the cropped section shown above.

At this latitude atmospheric carbon dioxide settles as frost during the winter, then sublimates away with the coming of spring. The freeze-sublimation process disturbs the sand each year, causing these avalanches.

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The icy Phlegra Mountains: Mars’ future second city

Icy glaciers in the Phlegra Mountains of Mars
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About a thousand miles to the west of the candidate landing site for SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft rises a massive mountain wall dubbed the Phlegra Mountains, rising as much as 11,000 feet above the adjacent lowland northern plains.

Phlegra Montes (its official name) is of special interest because of its apparent icy nature. Here practically every photograph taken by any orbiter appears to show immense glacial flows of some kind, with some glaciers coming down canyons and hollows [#1], some filling craters [#2], some forming wide aprons [#3] at the base of mountains and even at the mountains’ highest peaks [#4], and some filling the flats [#5] beyond the mountain foothills.

And then there are the images that show almost all these types of glaciers, plus others [#6]. Today’s cool image above is an example of this. In this one photo we can see filled craters, aprons below peaks, and flows moving down canyons. It is as if a thick layer of ice has partly buried everything up the highest elevations.

None of this has gone unnoticed by scientists. For the past decade they have repeatedly published papers noting these features and their icy appearance, concluding that the Phlegra Mountains are home to ample buried ice. SpaceX even had one image taken here [#3] as a candidate landing site for Starship, though this is clearly not their primary choice at this time.

The map below gives an overview of the mountains, their relationship to the Starship landing site, and the location by number of the images listed above.
» Read more

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A river canyon on Mars?

Cool image time! In the most recent download of new images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) were two photos, found here and here, that struck me as very intriguing. Both were titled simply as a “Terrain Sample” image, which generally means the picture was taken not because of any specific request by another scientist doing specific research but because the camera team needs to take an image to maintain the camera’s proper temperature, and in doing so they try to time it so that they can do some random exploring as well.

As it turned out, the two images were more than simply random, as they both covered different parts of the same Martian feature, what looks like a branching dry dendritic river drainage. Below is a mosaic of those two images, fit together as one image, with a wider context image to the right, taken by Mars Odyssey, showing the entire drainage plus the surrounding landscape with the white arrow added to help indicate the drainage’s location.
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Weird flat plateau on Mars

Weird flat plateau on Mars
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Cool image time! The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 15, 2020, and was actually a follow-up observation from an earlier image taken by the camera on Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), according to Dr. Livio Tornabene of the University of Western Ontario. As he explained in an email:

The team is rather polarized with their verdict on what exactly the feature is… while at first glance it appears to be a lava flow, it very well could be that these deposits eroded to yield this flow/lobate like appearance and isn’t lava at all. So as someone that is both involved with [TGO] and [MRO], I noticed that the lobate feature causing quite the debate had no coverage from [MRO].

It appears that some scientists think that instead of lava, this is a mud flow. Research presented [pdf] during the 2019 Lunar & Planetary Conference in Texas found evidence that mud could flow like lava under the right conditions.

At this point neither Tornabene nor anyone working on the TGO team have yet analyzed this new MRO image to see if they can answer this question. That this feature is located in a region just to the southeast of Marineris Valles where there is evidence both of volcanic activity and sedimentary deposition, makes answering the question even more challenging.

The data from TGO indicated [pdf] that the plateau was about 30 to 65 feet thick. Based on crater counts the age is thought to be between 1.6 to 1.9 billion years old.

What struck me about the plateau is that though it really does look like a flow, it also appears remarkably flat and smooth. Even more puzzling is that, according to the TGO paper, the plateau slopes downhill very gently (a 1% grade) to the south, not to the north as suggested by the shape of the flow. Maybe later geological events tilted the entire feature after it solidified, thus changing the grade?

Meanwhile that channel near the bottom of the image crosses through the grade and the flow, as if it was cut after the flow was placed. In other words, the flow and channel were formed separately, at different times.

Ah, the mysteries of planetary geology. If only we could just go there with a geologist’s hammer. These questions would then be so much more simple to answer.

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Changing Mars

The maculae splotch dubbed Maui
For the full images click here (2019) and here (2020).

While Mars appears to be a dead planet, with no clear evidence of life so far discovered, the planet is hardly inactive. Things are changing there continuously, even if it happens at a slower pace than here on Earth.

To the right are two images, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The first was on January 19, 2019, shortly after the end of the global dust storm that engulfed Mars during that Martian year. The second was taken on February 14, 2020, half a Martian year later. Both show one of a string of dark splotches located on the western flanks of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. Scientists call these splotches maculae, and because of their superficial resemblance to the islands of Hawaii, have given them names matching those islands. This particular patch is dubbed Maui. Below is a map showing all the splotches and their position relative to Olympus Mons, taken from a 2019 presentation [pdf].
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Skiing dry ice boulders on Mars

Dune slope, with grooves, in Russell Crater
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Cool image and video time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows something that when I spotted it in reviewing the newest image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found it very baffling. The photo was taken on March 3, 2020, and shows an incredible number of linear groves on the slope of a large dune inside Russell Crater, located in the Martian southern highlands at about 54 degrees south latitude.

If these were created by boulders we should see them at the bottom of each groove. Instead, the grooves generally seem to peter out as if the boulder rolling down the slope had vanished. Making this even more unlikely is that the top of the slope simply does not have sufficient boulders to make all these groves.

The image was requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who when I emailed her in bafflement she responded like so:
» Read more

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Enigmas on Mars

Enigmas on Mars
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a perfect example of the difficulty of explaining the alien landscapes on Mars, based on orbital imagery. It was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 23, 2020.

In this one image alone we have the following strange features, all within an area about 8 by 11 miles in size:

  • Several small very obvious pedestal craters (near the top right), some located inside depressions. Pedestal craters are created because the surrounding terrain eroded away around them. Since these are pedestals, however, why are they also inside depressions?
  • Two large circular mesas that appear to vaguely have terraced erosion. These might also be pedestal craters, but maybe not. They also sit much higher than the pedestal craters above. Either way, the mesas remained while the terrain around them eroded away.
  • Several normal craters with a series of circular features within each. At this latitude, 34 degrees south, it is possible these craters are filled with buried ice, what scientists call concentric crater filled glaciers.
  • A light-colored string of ridges aligned to almost look like a kite with tail. The light color says this ridge is not made up of the same material as the circular mesas and pedestal craters, but it too was not eroded away.
  • A number of small bean-shaped depressions (just south of the biggest circular mesa and near the top left). Don’t ask me what caused them. I have no idea.

Overview map

The spot is located in the Martian southern cratered highlands, as shown by the blue cross in the overview map to the right. Complicating its geological history is that it sits inside a very gigantic very old and degraded crater, with numerous newer smaller impacts overlaid on top. Any explanation needs to include these impacts, and the ejecta from them.

If you click on the image and study the full resolution photograph, you can find even more enigmatic features. For most there is a reasonable geological theory. Putting them all in one place and somehow getting all those different explanations to fit together however is far more difficult.

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It ain’t simple keeping a camera functioning properly in orbit around Mars

ADC settings test on MRO
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In doing my normal exploration through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the last to occur near the end of February, I came across a slew of 49 images, each labeled as an “ADC Settings Test,” each covering a completely different location with no obvious single object of study, almost as if they were taken in a wildly random manner.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a typical example. It shows the mega dunes located near the end of the canyon Chasma Boreale that cuts a giant slash into the Martian north polar ice cap, almost cutting off one third of the icecap.

The black areas are shadows, long because being at the high latitude of 84 degrees the Sun never gets very high in the sky, even though this image was taken just before mid-summer, when the Sun was at its highest.

I was puzzled why these images were being taken, and contacted Ari Espinoza, the media rep for the high resolution camera, to ask if he could put me in touch with a scientist who could provide an explanation. He in turn suggested I contact Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who coincidentally I had already spoken with several times before in connection with the annual summer avalanche season at the Martian north pole.

Dr. Byrne first suggested I read this abstract [pdf], written for the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science conference by the camera’s science team. In it they outline two issues with the camera, one blurred images and the second an increasing number of bad pixels occurring in images over time.

The first problem has since been solved. To preserve battery life — another long term problem that they have to deal with — they had adjusted the orbiter’s orbit slightly to get more sunlight and stopped warming the camera during the night periods. “That had the unfortunate effect of changing the camera’s focus,” explained Byrne. “Since we understand that now, we do warm-ups before taking the images and that fixed the blurring problem.”

The other problem however remains, and these ADC test images are an effort to fix it.
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In the midst of Mars’ volcano country

lava channel
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Cool image time! While the rest of the world is entirely focused on panic and disease, I am going to go on with my life. 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 December 26, 2019. I suspected this channel was lava, and when I asked Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona, he confirmed my suspicion.

Yes, that surface appears to be lava–it is part of the Elysium plains, which have many geologically-young lava flows. It’s likely that the channel is a lava channel, and the surrounding plains may be from an earlier stage of the same eruption.

The entire surface of the channel and the surrounding plains appear very fresh, mostly because of their smoothness and lack of many craters. You can also see what looks like a recent impact (the small dark splotch near the left edge about two-thirds from the top).

The fresh and smooth look of Elysium Planitia generally has led scientists to conclude that much of this region is formed from lava flows, some relatively recently. Thus, this particular lava channel is smack dab in the middle of Mars’ volcano country, quite vast and extensive. The context map below illustrates this.
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Quick fading of a Martian impact crater

Fresh impact crater on Mars, in 2010
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The same impact, four Martian years later.
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Cool image time! Though it seems that no one is really interested in anything but the Wuhan virus and the attempt by our corrupt politicians to use it to gain power, I think that life requires more from us than politics and panic. Thus, I am going to keep posting pure science and cool images.

The two photos to the right were taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) almost ten years apart. They were both posted as captioned images, the first in 2010, the second on March 19, 2020 to illustrate the remarkable fading of a fresh impact’s dark ejecta, in only about four Martian years.

The March 19, 2020 captioned image included an animation to illustrate the change. I prefer putting the two images side-by-side. Either way, the change is striking. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen noted in his caption, “the dark material has faded into the background, while the new 6.3-meter diameter crater persists.”

Wind and dust storms probably acted to wipe out the dark material, but the process did not take that long, and last year’s global dust storm was not a major factor, since much of the dark material was already gone in this July 2012 image.

The crater itself is located in Arcadia Planitia, just west of the Erebus Mountains, the very region in the northern lowlands that SpaceX has made its primary candidate landing site for its Starship rocket, partly because the terrain is flat which makes landing easy, and partly because there is amply evidence that these lowlands have lots of ice just below the surface. And the full image for the 2019 photo reinforces this conclusion. Much of the rougher ground south of the impact appears to be the partially sublimated surface of an ice block.

So, while this region will provide an easy smooth landing site and plenty of water for the first human arrivals, those humans will also have to contend with a planet without a thick atmosphere to protect them from most meteorites. Rare as these events are, they happen more often because of Mars’ location closer to the asteroid belt, and they hit the surface far more frequently.

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Mars: Volcanic, Glacial, or Fluvial?

Sinuous ridge on Mars
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Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on September 30, 2019. It shows what the image title dubs a “sinuous ridge” in a region called Tempe Terra.

What caused it? At first glance the meandering nature of the ridge suggests it was originally a riverbed, formed by flowing water. Eventually the water dried up, and because that riverbed was made of harder material than the surrounding terrain, long term erosion caused that surrounding terrain to wear away, leaving a raised ridge where the river used to be. Scientists have found many such inverted channels on Mars.

Not so fast!
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Martian plateaus and buttes

Martian plateaus and buttes
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Cool image time! Rather than sit in cowering fear, as it appears too many worldwide are doing, I am going to stay calm and carry on. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced in resolution to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 20, 2020. It shows a small section of a region dubbed Iani Chaos, a terrain dubbed such by scientists because of its cracked and chaotic nature, flat-topped mesas cut by canyons and fissures.

Chaos terrain is generally found in the transition zones on Mars between its southern highlands and northern lowlands. It was formed over time by erosion processes, either liquid water or ice, that slowly washed out the material along fault-lines, leaving mesas behind. This particular spot in Iani Chaos appears to be late in this process, with the gaps between the buttes wide and many of the mesas worn down into pointy knobs.

The location of Iani Chaos, as shown in the map below, tells us much about its history.
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Layers upon layers upon layers on Mars

Layered mesa on Mars
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Cool image time! Or rather, a bunch of cool images! On February 17, 2020 the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) released a very cool captioned photograph of a terraced mesa in a crater just north of Hellas Basin, shown in the image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here.

The color strip down the center of this image illustrates how the colors of the different layers indicate the different make-up of each. These distinctions are not obvious in black & white. That array of colors also leads to some very beautiful scenery, as noted by planetary scientist Alfred McEwen in his caption:

Sedimentary layers record a history of Mars’ erosion and deposition by water and wind, and they make great landscapes for future interplanetary parks.

That this terraced mesa is located on the northern edge of Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars, is possibly not surprising. Other similarly terraced mesas like this have been found on the basin’s eastern edge, highlighted in my September 2019 post. The geology here appears to encourage this kind of erosion, where the different sedimentary bedrock layers erode away at different rates, leaving behind terraced mesas.

Terraced layers on Mars however come in other varieties, some of which build up over time instead of getting eroded away.
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Inactive hot springs on Mars?

Inactive hot springs on Mars?
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Overview of Vernal Crater

Cool image time! In prepping my report of the interesting abstracts from Friday of the cancelled 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference (to be posted later today), I found myself reading an abstract [pdf] from the astrobiology session about the possibility of now inactive hot springs on Mars! This was such a cool image and possibility I decided to post it separately, first.

The top image to the right, cropped and expanded to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009. It shows some dark elliptical splotches inside the floor of a crater dubbed Vernal. The second image to the right, taken from the abstract, shows the context, with the top image a wide shot showing the southern half of Vernal Crater where these features are located, and the bottom image zooming into the area of interest. The white box focuses on the elliptical features seen in the first image above. From the abstract:

The elliptical features consist of concentric halos of high but varying albedo, where the highest albedo in each occurs in a small central zone that mimics the shape of the larger anomaly. Each feature is also traversed by circumferential fractures. Several similar tonal features extend for 5-6 km, on stratigraphic trend with the elliptical features. Hypotheses considered for the origin of the elliptical features included springs, mud/lava volcanoes, pingos, and effects of aeolian erosion, ice sublimation, or dust, but the springs alternative was most compatible with all the data.

The abstract theorizes that the small ligher central zone is where hot water might have erupted as “focused fluid injection” (like a geyser), spraying the surround area to form the dark ellipses.

I must emphasize that this hypothesis seems to me very tenuous. We do not really have enough data to really conclude these features come from a formerly active hot spring or geyser, though that certainly could be an explanation. In any case, the geology is quite intriguing, and mysterious enough to justify further research and even a future low cost mission, such as small helicopter drone, when many such missions can be launched frequently and cheaply.

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Secondary impacts in water ice on Mars

Secondary impact in water ice on Mars
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Cool image time! Today the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) released a beautiful captioned image of a secondary impact of an object into the icy plains of Utopia Planitia, the northern lowlands northeast of where the rover Perseverance will land in 2021. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows one of several secondary craters in the full image. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen explains in the caption,

One interpretation [for the crater’s unusual appearance] is that the impact crater exposed nearly pure water ice, which then sublimated away where exposed by the slopes of the crater, expanding the crater’s diameter and producing a scalloped appearance. The small polygons are another indicator of shallow ice.

Note the dunes at the bottom of the crater. This has become a trap of wind-blown sand and dust. Note also how this secondary impact gives us a rough idea of the thickness of this ice, based on the area sublimated away.

There is a lot of relatively accessible ice in those northern lowlands, which is why SpaceX likes them for its possible landing site for Starship. That candidate site is in Arcadia Planitia, on the other side of Mars, but it is still in these same northern lowlands, where scientists have found lots of evidence of buried ice.

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Black dunes and weird hills on Mars

Black dunes and weird hills on Mars
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Cool image time! Or I should say a bunch of cool images! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated by me, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 3, 2020. An uncaptioned image, it was entitled “Arabia Terra with Stair-Stepped Hills and Dark Dunes.” Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone on Mars between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands. It is also where Opportunity landed, and where Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover will land, in 2022.

This image has so many weird and strange features, I decided to show them all, Below are the three areas indicated by the white boxes, at full resolution. One shows the black dunes, almost certainly made up of sand ground from volcanic ash spewed from a long ago volcanic eruption on Mars.
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Martian dust devil tracks come and go

The changing surface of dunes on Mars
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Earlier image of the same dunes
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Cool image time! To understand what created the vastly strange and alien Martian surface, it will be necessary for scientists to monitor that surface closely for decades, if not centuries. To the right is one small example. Taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, it shows a dune field inside a crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars. Craters have been found to be great traps for dust and sand on Mars. Once the material is blown inside, the winds are not strong enough to lift the material out above the surrounding rims. Thus you often get giant dunes inside craters, as we see here.

What makes this location of interest to planetary scientists is the changing surface of these dunes. They have been monitoring the location since 2009. In 2013, the MRO science team released a captioned photograph, the second image to the right, also rotated, cropped, and reduced by me to match the same area in the top image. In that caption planetary scientist Corwin Atwood-Stone of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona wrote,

This area was previously imaged in August 2009, about two Mars years ago, and in that image dust devil tracks were also visible. However the tracks visible now are completely different from the earlier ones. This tells us that there has been at least one dust storm since then to erase the old tracks, and lots of dust devil activity to create the new ones.

Since then the MRO science team has taken repeated images of this location to monitor how the dust devil tracks change, as well as monitor possible changes to the dunes themselves, including avalanches. The newest image above shows the result of the global dust storm last year. It wiped out the dust devil tracks entirely.

The newer image was entitled, “Monitor Dune Avalanche Slopes,” but I couldn’t find any examples. Based on published research, I am sure there is something there, even if I couldn’t find them. Maybe my readers have a better eye than I.

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