Unusual oval pit near Galaxias Chaos on Mars

Oval pit or crater with opening in the bottom, as photographed near Galaxias Chaos on Mars by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Oval pit or crater with an opening in the bottom, as photographed near Galaxias Chaos on Mars by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This is interesting, a recent HiRISE photo from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft showing an oval pit or crater with an opening in the bottom (cropped here from one of the larger images) near Galaxias Chaos on Mars. The opening is also oval, and you can see some sand dunes on the bottom. How did it form? More images are available here.

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Ancient delta is newest evidence for Martian ocean

Topographic map from Mars Global Surveyor showing part of the lowlands region in the northern hemisphere (blue) which is thought to have once been an ocean. Credit: NASA / MOLA
Topographic map from Mars Global Surveyor showing part of the lowlands region in the northern hemisphere (blue) which is thought to have once been an ocean. Credit: NASA / MOLA

Whether or not Mars once had an ocean has been a subject of much debate for many years. There is substantial evidence pointing toward the possibility, but no “smoking gun” yet. Now, a new discovery from scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is fueling that debate again – an ancient delta that appears to have emptied into the hypothetical ocean in the northern hemisphere.

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Old Soviet Mars 3 lander discovered?

Set of images showing possible hardware from the Mars 3 landing in 1971. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona
Set of images showing possible hardware from the Mars 3 landing in 1971. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

A “missing” Mars lander and its associated hardware from the 1970s may have finally been discovered in images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Soviet Mars 3 lander was the first successful landing on Mars by any spacecraft, but after transmitting for only 14.5 seconds after touchdown on December 2, 1971, it went silent and was never heard from again. Its exact landing site was unknown, but now may have finally been located after all these years.

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Rovers keeping an eye on Martian dust storm

Mosaic image showing the dust storm in the southern hemisphere of Mars as of November 18, 2012. The locations of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers are also marked.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Systems

A large seasonal dust storm has been growing in the southern hemisphere of Mars over the last couple of weeks, and both rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, have been monitoring its extent and progress, as well as Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

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Mount Sharp comes into sharp focus

High-resolution view of mesas in the foothills of Mount Sharp. The tiny speck inside the white box is a boulder about the same size as the rover. Click on image for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

The Curiosity rover has returned yet more images of Mount Sharp, and these are the best and highest-resolution ones yet. Taken by the 100-millimeter Mastcam camera, they show the layering of the mesas in the foothills in incredible detail. Also note the tiny speck in the centre of the white box in the middle of the image (magnified in the bottom corner of the image); that is a boulder about the same size as the rover, which is car-sized, giving a sense of scale. These mesas are huge, and they are dwarfed by the rest of the mountain itself! The images above and below have been enhanced to show the colours as they would appear if they were on Earth. Click on the images for larger versions.

Another view, showing more of the foothills as well as terrain closer to the rover. Click on image for larger version.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

The image below is an orbital view from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing the same region of foothills. This is where Curiosity will be driving later on; the mesas and canyons will be seen up close providing views never seen before by a rover on Mars. There is also a channel cutting through the middle portion of the image, which is thought to be an ancient riverbed. Other similar channels and their alluvial deposits can be seen elsewhere in this region. Click on the image for larger version and then click to zoom in.

Orbital view of mesas in the foothills of Mount Sharp. An ancient channel, thought to be a riverbed, cuts through the middle portion of the image. Click on image for larger version and then click to zoom in.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Mars may have once had active plate tectonics, new study says

Valles Marineris, the largest canyon system in the solar system. Is it evidence for early plate tectonics on Mars?
Credit: NASA

Plate tectonics are a geological phenomenon that, in our solar system, have long been thought to be unique to Earth. The Earth’s crust is broken into seven different major sections or “plates,” kind of like a cracked eggshell. These plates move around, slide against each other and even move above and below each other. Earthquakes are a common result of all of this activity.

Other planets and moons in our solar system haven’t shown evidence of this so far, even though some are volcanically active, like Jupiter’s moon Io for example (volcanic activity is possible without plate tectonics). Mars has huge shield volcanoes, but they are thought to have been extinct for millions or billions of years. A lack of crustal movement would explain why Mars’ volcanoes have tended to become so large, much bigger than any on Earth, since they remained in one spot and just kept growing instead of moving around.

But now a new report challenges this view of Mars, suggesting that it did once have active plate tectonics, but that the crust was divided into no more than two plates and that they moved much more slowly than those on Earth, due to Mars’ smaller size and cooling of its interior early in its history.

See Examiner.com for the full article.

High-resolution view inside Gale crater

A small portion of the “oblique view” image of Mount Sharp and surrounding terrain in Gale crater. Credit: NASA / JPL

A new “oblique view” image has been posted on the HiRISE website showing an area inside Gale crater, the landing spot of the Curiosity rover. The high-resolution image, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows a portion of Mount Sharp and the surrounding terrain of layers, canyons, buttes and sand dunes. The viewing angle is 45˚, similar to looking out the window of an airplane. Zoom into the image to see all of the amazing detail!

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.

Evidence grows for liquid water on Mars

Example of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in Horowitz crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Is there still liquid water on Mars? That has been one of the longest-running and most debated questions about the Red Planet. Mars has tons of water, but it is frozen in the polar ice caps and in extensive regions of permafrost underground around the planet. The thin atmosphere does contain water vapour – enough for clouds, fog, frost and snow, but it is too thin and cold for liquid water to exist on the surface.

There might be one exception however. It’s been postulated that small amounts of salty liquid water brines could persist on the surface for short periods of time. The salts allow the water to remain liquid despite the thin atmosphere (and less atmospheric pressure) and cold temperatures. Experiments on Earth have supported this idea.

They may have even been observed directly by the Phoenix lander which landed in the Martian arctic near the north pole – small droplets were seen forming on one of the lander’s legs after landing which had the appearance of water droplets. They grew, merged and slowly moved down the leg before sublimating. Phoenix wasn’t able to analyze them directly, but they looked and behaved like briny water droplets, and the soil, like in other places on Mars, was found to contain both water ice and salts. The theory is that heat from the spacecraft caused the droplets to form, possibly from the exhaust during the landing itself.

Last year, other possible evidence for such brines was found in photographs taken from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Dark linear markings on slopes which looked a lot like liquid flowing downhill. Unlike some other streaks which might be explained by dry processes such as landslides, these ones appear during warmer months on slopes which face the equator and recur seasonally. They move downhill as dark streaks before eventually fading, as water would be expected to do.

Last week, scientists provided an update on these tantalizing features at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas; they have not been able to come up with an explanation that doesn’t involve briny water. The number of known locations of these “recurring slope lineae” (RSL) has more than doubled, up to 15 from the previous seven. There are also currently 23 other candidates, although they haven’t yet been shown to recur; that will require further observations.

On Earth, there are similar features in Antarctica, where salty groundwater seeps downhill through the soil. According to Joe Levy of Oregon State University, “The RSL and the [Antarctic] water tracks are both flowing like water through sediment. If it moves like water, it may very well be water.”

The evidence suggests that water may indeed still flow on Mars, albeit in small amounts. If true, it adds to our understanding of how Mars is similar to Earth in some ways (and, based on other evidence, used to be much more so in the past).

This article was first published on Examiner.com.