Enigmatic spiral patterns found on Mars

A few of the spiral patterns in Cerberus Palus on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA

Although smaller than the Earth, Mars has been found to be a geologically very diverse place, often similar to our own planet but also sometimes quite different – a world that is both eerily familiar and uniquely alien.

Now, another new discovery has raised more questions about the planet’s past, and how similar geological processes have shaped the landscapes of both worlds.

Photographs taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft of the Athabasca Valles region near the equator have revealed hundreds of odd spiral shapes on the surface. So far, 269 have been found, ranging up to about 30 metres (100 feet) across each, at Cerberus Palus specifically, an area where “plates” of material have fractured, rotated and drifted over time. On Earth, similar looking coils can be formed by “ice rafts” or slow-moving lava flows, either of which may also explain the platy, fractured appearance of the ground.

A few of the spiral patterns in Cerberus Palus on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA

So how did these coils form? By fire or ice?

When pahoehoe lava flows on Earth slide past each other, moving at different speeds or in different directions, they can form twisted, coiled shapes similar to those seen on Mars.

Pahoehoe lava coil in Hawaii, approximately 10 metres (33 feet) in diameter. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to Andrew Ryan, one of the authors of the new study published in the journal Science, “Everything that we have observed in Athabasca Valles can be formed by lava. Although you could attribute certain features to ice, the lava coils indicate that this is not the case. There are no known mechanisms to naturally produce spiral patterns in ice-rich environments on the scale and frequency observed in our study area.”

But not all scientists are convinced about the lava explanation. They contend that water ice could still account for the curious spirals – as explained by John Murray of the Department of Earth Sciences at the Open University in the UK:

“I think there are so many features here that it’s difficult to explain them other than [the theory] that this was essentially water that froze and has since sublimated away. Sublimation is when a solid turns directly into a gas. There is no lava that behaves in so many different ways.”

He adds, “You do get plates in lava, but on the scale of a few metres. Here you’re talking about things which are kilometres long, and the only way you can do that really is to have a liquid that’s extremely mobile and fluid – water or something like water. If you freeze the top of that, as in the Arctic, you do get ice floes that are several kilometres or more, which is what you get on Mars in this region. You never see anything like that in a lava flow.”

As with other Martian mysteries, the debate will probably continue for the forseeable future.

The paper is available here.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.


  1. I know part of it is the angle from which the pictures are taken, but the hoirozn always seems so much closer then it would if you took the same picture on Earth. But with Mars being smaller then Earth, the hoirozn would be closer regardless of the angle. I could see the first explorers feeling like they may just drive off the edge of the planet when they are out in a buggy.

  2. This is really interesting, Paul. The spirals on Mars seem a bit different than the Hawaii lava coil. The Mars ones are quite beautiful, almost ‘fiddlehead’-like. I wasn’t familiar with lava coils before this – we are going to Hawaii this fall and hope to visit the volanco – I’ll keep an eye out for information about them.

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