Categories: HiRISEMars

Look down into a pit on Mars. The caved-in roof of a lava tube could be a good place to explore on the Red Planet

Want to look inside a deep, dark pit on Mars? Scientists and engineers using the HiRISE Camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have done just that.

From its orbit about 260 km (160 miles) above the surface, HiRISE can spot something as small as a dinner table, about a meter in size. But can it look inside a cave-like feature on the Red Planet and actually resolve any details inside this pit?

In this cutout, the ‘normal’ view of the HiRISE image on the left, while the right shows what happens when the brightness of the pixels inside the pit is enhanced. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

 “Fortunately, HiRISE is sensitive enough to actually see things in this otherwise dark pit,” wrote MRO team member Ross Beyer on the HiRISE website. “Since HiRISE turned by almost 30 degrees to capture this image, we can see the rough eastern wall of the pit. The floor of the pit appears to be smooth sand and slopes down to the southeast.”

The hope in doing these special maneuvers to take this image, Beyer said, was to determine if this was an isolated pit, or if it was a skylight into a tunnel – similar to skylights in the lava tubes of Hawai’i.

No tunnels are seen in the visible walls, but scientists have ruled out that there could be tunnels in the walls that aren’t visible.

Dark pits on Mars are fascinating – probably because they provide mysteries and possibilities. Could anything be inside? Or this could be a place where humans could set up a future base since it would provide shelter from Mars’ harsh environment. If a future rover mission were to land nearby, this pit might be worth a look – from a safe distance around the rim, of course.

This pit is located near the Tharsis volcanic rise, a giant region on Mars that includes the three large volcanoes Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons. Here’s another pit that HiRISE spotted in 2009 that is relatively nearby to this one.

Fraser has a great video about lava tubes and pits, and you can read more about them in this article.

The HiRISE camera has provided incredible images of Mars since its arrival to Mars in 2006. As its name implies, this is a high resolution camera and is the largest ever flown on a planetary mission. HiRISE has allowed the orbiter to identify obstacles such as large rocks that could jeopardize the safety of landers and rovers, like the Curiosity rover or the upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

Find out more and see additional stunning imagery on the HiRISE website.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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