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This Black Stain On Mars Could Be Volcanic Leftovers

The dark material in Becquerel crater  on Mars might have come from a volcanic eruption. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The dark material in Becquerel crater on Mars might have come from a volcanic eruption. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

At first glance, it looks like somebody dropped a huge paint can on Mars, spilling black stuff all over Becquerel crater. That dark material, however, is likely blown from another location on the Red Planet. It could even be volcanic eruption remnants, the European Space Agency says.

A set of stunning new images of the spot in the Arabia Terra region — which straddles the so-called “transition zone” between the north and south regions of the planet — reveal a combination of probable effects from wind, water and perhaps even the tilt of the axis of Mars. These pictures came courtesy of ESA’s Mars Express, which is orbiting the planet.

The crater — named after French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel, a co-discoverer of radioactivity — is 103 miles (167 kilometers) in diameter and sinks 2.2 miles (3.5 km) below the rest of the area. This depression might have held water at some point.

“The mound rises about 1 km [0.62 miles] above the crater floor and comprises hundreds of layers of light-toned sediments, each just a few metres thick, made of sulphate-bearing rocks,” ESA stated. “On Earth, sulphates are most often formed via the evaporation of water, so the presence of these minerals in Becquerel crater suggests that water may once have pooled here in a vast crater lake, before evaporating away.”

This view of Becquerel Crater on Mars shows the effects of wind on the Red Planet. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

This view of Becquerel Crater on Mars shows the effects of wind on the Red Planet. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The mystery of Mars’ missing water is one that is still puzzling scientists — NASA’s Spirit, Curiosity and Opportunity rovers all found rocks that likely formed in the presence of water, and several spacecraft have spotted features that appear to be similar to riverbeds or perhaps even oceans.

“One popular theory is that large changes in the tilt of the rotational axis of Mars leads to significant changes in its climate, reflected in the thickness and repeating patterns found in the layers of sediment,” ESA added. “A change in the environmental conditions would affect the way in which the sediments were initially deposited, as well as their subsequent resistance to erosion.”

Speaking of sediments, the image above shows the dark material extending far beyond the crater walls, a sign of powerful winds on the Red Planet. Now who’s tempted to go down there with a shovel to see what’s underneath?

As a point of trivia, another spot in Arabia Terra (Vernal Crater) was once considered a possible landing site for Mars Curiosity because scientists found evidence of ancient hot springs on the Red Planet. On Earth, these locations are usually filled with bacterial life.

The topography of Becquerel crater on Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The topography of Becquerel crater on Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aqua4U September 6, 2013, 6:41 PM

    Now THAT! is interesting! Be nice to have an orientation map? A quick Wiki look sez this crater is in the Arabia Terra region…. too bad it isn’t in Hellas Planitia?

    • MarsFKA September 6, 2013, 8:37 PM

      Becquerel is 1,000 km east of the Ares Vallis outflow. In terms of driving distance from Curiosity in Gale Crater, Becquerel is around 6,000 km. Curiosity would never make it.

      • bernard grover September 7, 2013, 2:50 PM

        Curiosity has a power supply rated at 140 years
        I’m quite sure it could make it.

        • MarsFKA September 8, 2013, 2:01 AM

          Power supply is one thing. Mechanical reliability and being able to traverse the enormously varied terrain along the way are different matters altogether.
          Spirit lasted a lot longer than the minimum 90 days, but broke down eventually – it already had two drive wheels out of action before it got stuck in soft dust. Opportunity is still working, but now showing signs of age.
          Call up a map of Mars – the MOLA map would do – and see what sort of ground that Curiosity would have to traverse between Gale and Becquerel.

      • Aqua4U September 7, 2013, 10:11 PM

        As bernard mentions… power is not a problem. Global dust storms burying Curiosity a more likely demise? Oppy’s example fills me with hope. Of coors, were I a mission manager, I’d seriously think about leaving for Becquerel crater today! I LIKE what I’m seeing there! HO!

        Then again.. Hellas Planitia beconszuh!

  • Son of Squidward September 7, 2013, 3:37 PM

    Ahhhh, jeez. This is how it started back in 1897….First the “eruptions”, then the falling cylinders, then the damned Martian tripods…. ;-)

  • Arx September 7, 2013, 4:55 PM

    There has been (unofficial) speculation that the underground around this volcanic area could produce just enough subsurface heat to sustain something akin to a lichen on the surface. I know it is a reach but it is an interesting theory.

  • feegaro September 7, 2013, 10:18 PM

    It is obviously the result of an electrical plasma discharge. If anyone wants to actually understand how features like this are formed, research electric plasma cosmology… Or you can stick to ‘reaching’ for explanations using established modern theories that continously fail to predict or adequately explain phenomena.

    • feegaro September 8, 2013, 6:47 PM

      Or maybe it is a result of global warming…

  • Prism2Spectrum September 9, 2013, 3:31 PM

    Vulcan’s terrible anvil, planet Venus. Deep buried desolation, howling winds overblown, a cloud-deck’s super-rotation. Locked in ruin, acid-rained world, fascinating hints, former condition reluctantly-yields: temperate for habitation ( ocean clothed, clear air-enveloped )?

    Below its space, burned in Sun’s glare, elusive Mercury: an unsheathed riddle, inside an enigma, iron mystery, darkly-enclosed.

    Mars: Air-vault-stripped, tattered ghost of atmosphere, ruddy sands flimsy veil: Exposed and naked, frozen surface, to deadly Solar flow. Yet, cousin Venus entombed, no stranger to habitability’s ancient impression. From pole to pole, clues tease mankind, with intriguing allure: watermarks of rives and seas ( cloud bestowed? ); fields of snow, glaciers ground cold.Today, a world felled, of former self, but shrunken(?) shell ( moon-anchor, untied? ).

    Surface page, more Earth-like conditions turn, theme does suggest.

    And, clues from inferno’s gates, Venusian winds escaped(?), drifting out into near space: Earth’s terrible twin, a previous age.

    Ironically, Terra’s own history, hints chapter grim, for life not so inviting. What explain, terrestrial family’s curiously reversal of fortune?

    ( On Sun’s terrestrial edge, “Belt” of rubble, tumbling mysteriously around, lair of giants, looming awesome beyond. )

    Scattered point? On either side, near Earth, two sibling worlds—uninhabitable—turn deathly still. Tantalizing glimpse, habitability potential may once have held! Silent wastelands, now, haunted by unrealized past: Global homes, could have been, but for conditions that did not last. Why?

    Between them—teeming with all manner of living motion: “The Blue Planet”—man’s beautiful Home! Yet, World itself, by unmarked by catastrophe alone. Fallen to wreckage, for ages to come, not unsalvaged. Why?

    Ash-buried Venus, deep-frozen Mars. Betwixt the two: Garden Earth with fauna alive, vibrant with flora, all systems Green! ( Platform prime, observatory opened, Universe of wonder see. ) Geared with differential motion, sphere assemblies turn, cycles perfectly aligned, interlocked with synchrony, Lunar harmony timed(?). How?

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