A Meteoroid Smashed Into the Side of a Crater on Mars and Then Started a Landslide

In 2006, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) established orbit around the Red Planet. Using an advanced suite of scientific instruments – which include cameras, spectrometers, and radar – this spacecraft has been analyzing landforms, geology, minerals and ice on Mars for years and assisting with other missions. While the mission was only meant to last two years, the orbiter has remained in operation for the past twelve.

In that time, the MRO has acted as a relay for other missions to send information back to Earth and provided a wealth of information of its own on the Red Planet. Most recently, it captured an image of an impact crater that caused a landslide, which left a long, dark streak along the crater wall. Such streaks are created when dry dust collapses down the edge of a Martian hill, leaving behind dark swaths.

Close up of the crater captured by the MRO’s HiRISE instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In this respect, these avalanches are not unlike Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), where seasonal dark streaks appear along slopes during warmer days on Mars. These are believed to be caused by either salt water flows or dry dust grains falling naturally. In this case, however, the dry dust on the slope was destabilized by the meteor’s impact, which exposed darker material beneath.

The impact that created the crater is believed to have happened about ten years ago. And while the crater itself (shown above) is only 5 meters (16.4 feet) across, the streak it resulted in is 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) long! The image also captured the faded scar of an old avalanche, which is visible to the side of the new dark streak.

The image was captured by the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which is operated by researchers at the Planetary Image Research Laboratory (PIRL), part of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Wider-angle view of the impact crater captured by the MRO’s HiRISE instrument and the resulting dark streak. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This is just the latest in a long-line of images and data packages sent back by the MRO. By providing daily reports on Mars’ weather and surface conditions, and studying potential landing sites, the MRO also paves the way for future spacecraft and surface missions. In the future, the orbiter will serve as a highly capable relay satellite for missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which will continue in the hunt for signs of past life on Mars.

At present, the MRO has enough propellant to keep functioning into the 2030s, and given its intrinsic value to the study of Mars, it is likely to remain in operation right up until it exhausts its fuel. Perhaps it will even be working when astronauts arrived on the Red Planet?

Colonizing the Inner Solar System

Colonizing The Inner Solar System


Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.

This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.

This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX.  In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.

At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.

But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.

Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000.  Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.

Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.

If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.

And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.

The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.

One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.

We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.

We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.

We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.

Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.

With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.

But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.

High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.

Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.

It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.

With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.

Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.

So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.

Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.

Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.

In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.

One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.

Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.

Artist's concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center

Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.

So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?

The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.

Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.

Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.

Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.

Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.

However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.

But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.

As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.

One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.

A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.

Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.

Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.

Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.

By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.

When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.

Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.

The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.

But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.

But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.

Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA's Johnson Space Center
Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.

Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.

The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.

We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.

One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.

These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.

The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.

And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.

These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.

There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.

Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.

The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.

The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA
The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA

Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.

Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.

Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.

Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.

The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.

That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.

Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. The explorers have descended to the surface of Phobos in a small "excursion" vehicle, and they are navigating with the aid of a personal spacecraft, which fires a line into the soil to anchor the unit. The astronaut on the right is examining a large boulder; if the boulder weighed 1,000 pounds on Earth, it would weigh a mere pound in the nearly absent gravity field of Phobos. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)
Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.

We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.

According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.

Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.

Best Photos Yet of the Mars Lander’s Demise

A closeup of the dark, approximately circular crater about 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter marking the crash of the Schiaparelli test lander on Mars. The photo was taken on October 25 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Lander (MRO). Credit:
A closeup of the dark, approximately circular crater about 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter that marks the crash of the Schiaparelli test lander on Mars. The new, higher-resolution photo was taken on October 25 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Lander (MRO). A hint of an upraised rim is visible along the crater’s lower left side. The tiny white specks may be pieces of the lander that broke away on impact. The odd dark curving line has yet to be explained.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the most powerful telescope for observing Mars? A telephoto lens on the HiRise camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can resolve features as small as 3 feet (1-meter) across. NASA used that camera to provide new details of the scene near the Martian equator where Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander crashed to the surface last week.

The Schiaparelli test lander was protected by its heat shield as it descended through the Martian atmosphere at high speed. Credit: ESA
The Schiaparelli test lander was protected by its heat shield as it descended through the Martian atmosphere at high speed. Credit: ESA

During an October 25 imaging run HiRise photographed three locations where hardware from the lander hit the ground all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) of each other. The dark crater in the photo above is what you’d expect if a 660-pound object (lander) slammed into dry soil at more than 180 miles an hour (300 km/h). The crater’s about a foot and a half (half a meter) deep and haloed by dark rays of fresh Martian soil excavated by the impact.

But what about that long dark arc northeast of the crater?  Could it have been created by a piece of hardware jettisoned when Schiaparelli’s propellant tank exploded? The rays are curious too. The European Space Agency says that the lander fell almost vertically when the thrusters cut out, yet the asymmetrical nature of the streaks — much longer to the west than east — would seem to indicate an oblique impact. It’s possible, according to the agency, that the hydrazine propellant tanks in the module exploded preferentially in one direction upon impact, throwing debris from the planet’s surface in the direction of the blast, but more analysis is needed. Additional white pixels in the image could be lander pieces or just noise.

This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event and our highest resolution of the scene to date. Annotations by the author. Click for a full-resolution image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event and our highest resolution of the scene to date. Click for a full-resolution image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the wider shot, several other pieces of lander-related flotsam are visible. About 0.8 mile (1.4 km) eastward, you can see the tiny crater dug out when the heat shield smacked the ground. Several bright spots might be pieces of its shiny insulation. About 0.6 mile (0.9 kilometer) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are thought to be the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell.  NASA plans additional images to be taken from different angle to help better interpret what we see.

The last happy scene for the lander when it still dangled from its chute before dropping and slamming into the surface. Credit: ESA
Schiaparelli dangles from its parachute in this artist’s view. A software error caused the chute to deploy too soon. Credit: ESA

The test lander is part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2016 mission, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on Oct. 19. The orbiter will investigate the atmosphere and surface of Mars in search of organic molecules and provide relay communications capability for landers and rovers on Mars. Science studies won’t begin until the spacecraft trims its orbit to a 248-mile-high circle through aerobraking, which is expected to take about 13 months.

Everything started out well with Schiaparelli, which successfully transmitted data back to Earth during its descent through the atmosphere, the reason we know that the heat shield separated and the parachute deployed as planned. Unfortunately, the chute and its protective back shell ejected ahead of time followed by a premature firing of the thrusters. And instead of burning for the planned 30 seconds, the rockets shut off after only 3. Why? Scientists believe a software error told the lander it was much closer to the ground than it really was, tripping the final landing sequence too early.

Landing on Mars has never been easy. We’ve done flybys, attempted to orbit the planet or land on its surface 44 times. 15 of those have been landing attempts, with 7 successes: Vikings 1 and 2, Mars Pathfinder, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Phoenix Lander and Curiosity rover. We’ll be generous and call it 8 if you count the 1971 landing of Mars 3 by the then-Soviet Union. It reached the surface safely but shut down after just 20 seconds.

Mars can be harsh, but it forces us to get smart.

**** Want to learn more about Mars and how to track it across the sky? My new book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, which will be published on Nov. 8, covers planets, satellites, the aurora and much more. You can pre-order it right now at these online stores. Just click an icon to go to the site of your choice – Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount.

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What Are The Different Parts Of A Volcano?

Without a doubt, volcanoes are one of the most powerful forces of nature a person can bear witness to. Put simply, they are what results when a massive rupture takes place in the Earth’s crust (or any planetary-mass object), spewing hot lava, volcanic ash, and toxic fumes onto the surface and air. Originating from deep within the Earth’s crust, volcanoes leave a lasting mark on the landscape.

But what are the specific parts of a volcano? Aside from the “volcanic cone” (i.e. the cone-shaped mountain), a volcano has many different parts and layers, most of which are located within the mountainous region or deep within the Earth. As such, any true understanding of their makeup requires that we do a little digging (so to speak!)

While volcanoes come in a number of shapes and sizes, certain common elements can be discerned. The following gives you a general breakdown of a volcanoes specific parts, and what goes into making them such a titanic and awesome natural force.

Magma Chamber:

A magma chamber is a large underground pool of molten rock sitting underneath the Earth’s crust. The molten rock in such a chamber is under extreme pressure, which in time can lead to the surrounding rock fracturing, creating outlets for the magma. This, combined with the fact that the magma is less dense than the surrounding mantle, allows it to seep up to the surface through the mantle’s cracks.

Lava cooling after an eruption, Credit: kalapanaculturaltours.com
Lava cooling after an eruption from Kilauea, a shield volcano near Kalapana, Hawaii Credit: kalapanaculturaltours.com

When it reaches the surface, it results in a volcanic eruption. Hence why many volcanoes are located above a magma chamber. Most known magma chambers are located close to the Earth’s surface, usually between 1 km and 10 km deep. In geological terms, this makes them part of the Earth’s crust – which ranges from 5–70 km (~3–44 miles) deep.

Lava:

Lava is the silicate rock that is hot enough to be in liquid form, and which is expelled from a volcano during an eruption. The source of the heat that melts the rock is known as geothermal energy – i.e. heat generated within the Earth that is leftover from its formation and the decay of radioactive elements. When lava first erupted from a volcanic vent (see below), it comes out with a temperature of anywhere between 700 to 1,200 °C (1,292 to 2,192 °F). As it makes contact with air and flows downhill, it eventually cools and hardens.

Main Vent:

A volcano’s main vent is the weak point in the Earth’s crust where hot magma has been able to rise from the magma chamber and reach the surface. The familiar cone-shape of many volcanoes are an indication of this, the point at which ash, rock and lava ejected during an eruption fall back to Earth around the vent to form a protrusion.

Throat:

The uppermost section of the main vent is known as the volcano’s throat. As the entrance to the volcano, it is from here that lava and volcanic ash are ejected.

 Thurston lava tube is located on Kilauea in Hawaii. Credit: P. Mouginis-Mark, LPI
Thurston lava tube is located on Kilauea in Hawaii. Credit: P. Mouginis-Mark, LPI

Crater:

In addition to cone structures, volcanic activity can also lead to circular depressions (aka. craters) forming in the Earth. A volcanic crater is typically a basin, circular in form, which can be large in radius and sometimes great in depth. In these cases, the lava vent is located at the bottom of the crater. They are formed during certain types of climactic eruptions, where the volcano’s magma chamber empties enough for the area above it to collapse, forming what is known as a caldera.

Pyroclastic Flow:

Otherwise known as a pyroclastic density current, a pyroclastic flow refers to a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock that is moving away from a volcano. Such flows can reach speeds of up to 700 km/h (450 mph), with the gas reaching temperatures of about 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). Pyroclastic flows normally hug the ground and travel downhill from their eruption site.

Their speeds depend upon the density of the current, the volcanic output rate, and the gradient of the slope. Given their speed, temperature, and the way they flow downhill, they are one of the greatest dangers associated with volcanic eruptions and are one of the primary causes of damage to structures and the local environment around an eruption site.

Ash Cloud:

Volcanic ash consists of small pieces of pulverized rock, minerals and volcanic glass created during a volcanic eruption. These fragments are generally very small, measuring less than 2 mm (0.079 inches) in diameter. This sort of ash forms as a result of volcanic explosions, where dissolved gases in magma expand to the point where the magma shatters and is propelled into the atmosphere. The bits of magma then cool, solidifying into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.

Volcanoes
View of volcanic ash spewing from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. Credit: ©Snaevarr Gudmundsson.

Because of their size and the explosive force with which they are generated, volcanic ash is picked up by winds and dispersed up to several kilometers away from the eruption site. Due to this dispersal, ash an also have a damaging effect on the local environment, which includes negatively affecting human and animal health, disrupting aviation, disrupting infrastructure, and damaging agriculture and water systems. Ash is also produced when magma comes into contact with water, which causes the water to explosively evaporate into steam and for the magma to shatter.

Volcanic Bombs:

In addition to ash, volcanic eruptions have also been known to send larger projectiles flying through the air. Known as volcanic bombs, these ejecta are defined as those that measure more than 64mm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and which are formed when a volcano ejects viscous fragments of lava during an eruption. These cool before they hit the ground, are thrown many kilometers from the eruption site, and often acquire aerodynamic shapes (i.e. streamlined in form).

While the term applies to any ejecta larger than a few centimeters, volcanic bombs can sometimes be very large. There have been recorded instances where objects measuring several meters were retrieved hundreds of meters from an eruptions. Small or large, volcanic bombs are a significant volcanic hazard and can often cause serious damage and multiple fatalities, depending on where they land. Luckily, such explosions are rare.

Secondary Vent:

On large volcanoes, magma can reach the surface through several different vents. Where they reach the surface of the volcano, they form what is referred to as a secondary vent. Where they are interrupted by accumulated ash and solidified lava, they become what is known as a Dike. And where these intrude between cracks, pool and then crystallize, they form what is called a Sill.

Cross-section through a stratovolcano (vertical scale is exaggerated): 1. Large magma chamber 2. Bedrock 3. Conduit (pipe) 4. Base 5. Sill 6. Dike 7. Layers of ash emitted by the volcano 8. Flank 9. Layers of lava emitted by the volcano 10. Throat 11. Parasitic cone 12. Lava flow 13. Vent 14. Crater 15. Ash cloud MesserWoland
Cross-section of a stratovolcano: 1. Magma chamber 2. Bedrock 3. Vent 4. Base 5. Sill 6. Dike 7. Layers of ash 8. Flank 9. Layers of lava 10. Throat 11. Parasitic cone 12. Lava flow 13. Vent 14. Crater 15. Ash cloud. Credit: MesserWoland

Secondary Cone:

Also known as a Parasitic Cone, secondary cones build up around secondary vents that reach the surface on larger volcanoes. As they deposit lava and ash on the exterior, they form a smaller cone, one that resembles a horn on the main cone.

Yes indeed, volcanoes are as powerful as they are dangerous. And yet, without these geological phenomena occasionally breaking through the surface and reigning down fire, smoke, and clouds of ash, the world as we know it would be a very different place. More than likely, it would be a geologically dead one, with no change or evolution in its crust. I think we can all agree that while such a world would be much safer, it would also be painfully boring!

We have written many interesting articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s is one about the different types of volcanoes, one about composite volcanoes, and here’s one on the famous volcanic belt, the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

Astronomy Cast also has a lovely episodes about volcanoes and geology, titled Episode 307: Pacific Ring of Fire and Episode 51: Earth

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

This Mountain on Mars Is Leaking

As the midsummer Sun beats down on the southern mountains of Mars, bringing daytime temperatures soaring up to a balmy 25ºC (77ºF), some of their slopes become darkened with long, rusty stains that may be the result of water seeping out from just below the surface.

The image above, captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 20, shows mountain peaks within the 150-km (93-mile) -wide Hale Crater. Made from data acquired in visible and near infrared wavelengths the long stains are very evident, running down steep slopes below the rocky cliffs.

These dark lines, called recurring slope lineae (RSL) by planetary scientists, are some of the best visual evidence we have of liquid water existing on Mars today – although if RSL are the result of water it’s nothing you’d want to fill your astro-canteen with; based on the first appearances of these features in early Martian spring any water responsible for them would have to be extremely high in salt content.

According to HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen “[t]he RSL in Hale have an unusually “reddish” color compared to most RSL, perhaps due to oxidized iron compounds, like rust.”

See a full image scan of the region here, and watch an animation of RSL evolution (in another location) over the course of a Martian season here.

Perspective view of Hale crater made from data acquired by ESA's Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Perspective view of Hale crater made from data acquired by ESA’s Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Channels in the southeastern ejecta of Hale crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University. (Source.)
THEMIS image of channels in the southeastern ejecta of Hale crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University. (Source.)

Hale Crater itself is likely no stranger to liquid water. Its geology strongly suggests the presence of water at the time of its formation at least 3.5 billion years ago in the form of subsurface ice (with more potentially supplied by its cosmic progenitor) that was melted en masse at the time of impact. Today carved channels and gullies branch within and around the Hale region, evidence of enormous amounts of water that must have flowed from the site after the crater was created. (Source.)

The crater is named after George Ellery Hale, an astronomer from Chicago who determined in 1908 that sunspots are the result of magnetic activity.

Read more on the University of Arizona’s HiRISE site here.

Sources: NASA, HiRISE and Alfred McEwen

UPDATE April 13: Conditions for subsurface salt water (i.e., brine) have also been found to exist in Gale Crater based on data acquired by the Curiosity rover. Gale was not thought to be in a location conducive to brine formation, but if it is then it would further strengthen the case for such salt water deposits in places where RSL have been observed. Read more here.

Is Phobos Doomed?

What fate awaits Phobos, one of the moons of Mars?

“All these worlds are yours except Europa, attempt no landing there.”

As much as I love Arthur C. Clarke and his books, I’ve got to disagree with his judgement on which moons we should be avoiding. Europa is awesome. It’s probably got a vast liquid ocean underneath its icy surface. There might even be life swimming down there, ready to be discovered. Giant freaky Europa whales or some kind of alien sharknado. Oh man, I just had the BEST idea for a movie.

So yea, Europa’s fine. The place we should really be avoiding is the Martian Moon Phobos. Why? What’s wrong with Phobos? Have I become some kind of Phobo…phobe? Is there any good reason to avoid this place?

Well first, its name tells us all we need to know. Phobos is named for the Greek god of Horror, and I don’t mean like the usual gods of horror as in Clive Barker, John Carpenter or Wes Craven, I mean that Phobos is the actual personification of Fear… possibly with a freaky lion’s head. And… there’s also the fact that Phobos is doomed.

Literally doomed. Living on borrowed time. Its days are numbered. It’s been poisoned and there’s no antidote. It’s got metal shards in its heart and the battery on it’s electro-magnet is starting to brown out. More specifically, in a few million years, the asteroid-like rock is going to get torn apart by the Martian gravity and then get smashed onto the planet.

The streaked and stained surface of Phobos. (Image: NASA)
The streaked and stained surface of Phobos. (Image: NASA)

It all comes down to tidal forces. Our Moon takes about 27 days to complete an orbit, and our planet takes around 24 hours to complete one rotation on its axis. Our Moon is pulling unevenly on the Earth and slowing its rotation down.

To compensate, the Moon is slowly drifting away from us. We did a whole episode about this which we’ll link at the end of the episode. On Mars, Phobos only takes 8 hours to complete an orbit around the planet. While the planet takes almost 25 hours to complete one rotation on its axis. So Phobos travels three times around the planet for every Martian day. And this is a problem.

It’s actually speeding up Mars’ rotation. And in exchange, it’s getting closer and closer to Mars with every orbit. The current deadpool gives the best odds on Phobos taking 30 to 50 million years to finally crash into the planet. The orbit will get lower and lower until it reaches a level known as the Roche Limit. This is the point where the tidal forces between the near and far sides of the moon are so different that it gets torn apart. Then Mars will have a bunch of teeny moons from the former Phobos.

Mars with rings of moon dust after the fall of one of its moons, Phobos. (Photo Credit: © Hive Studios)
Mars with rings of moon dust after the fall of one of its moons, Phobos.
(Photo Credit: © Hive Studios)

And then good news! Those adorable moonlets will get further pulverized until Mars has a ring. But then bad news… that ring will crash onto the planet in a cascade of destruction to be described as “the least fun balloon drop of all time”. So, you probably wouldn’t want to live on Mars then either.

Count yourself lucky. What were the chances that we would exist in the Solar System at a time that Phobos was a thing, and not a string of impacts on the surface of Mars.

Enjoy Phobos while you can, but remember that real estate there is temporary. Might I suggest somewhere in the alien sharknado infested waters of Europa instead?

What do you think. Did Arthur C Clarke have it wrong? Should we explore Europa?

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

How an Ancient Angled Impact Created Vesta’s Groovy Belt

When NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived at Vesta in July 2011, two features immediately jumped out at planetary scientists who had been so eagerly anticipating a good look at the giant asteroid. One was a series of long troughs encircling Vesta’s equator, and the other was the enormous crater at its southern pole. Named Rheasilvia, the centrally-peaked basin spans 500 kilometers in width and it was hypothesized that the impact event that created it was also responsible for the deep Grand Canyon-sized grooves gouging Vesta’s middle.

Now, research led by a Brown University professor and a former graduate student reveal how it all probably happened.

“Vesta got hammered,” said Peter Schultz, professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown and the study’s senior author. “The whole interior was reverberating, and what we see on the surface is the manifestation of what happened in the interior.”

Using a 4-meter-long air-powered cannon at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range, Peter Schultz and Brown graduate Angela Stickle – now a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory – recreated cosmic impact events with small pellets fired at softball-sized acrylic spheres at the type of velocities you’d find in space.

The impacts were captured on super-high-speed camera. What Stickle and Schultz saw were stress fractures occurring not only at the points of impact on the acrylic spheres but also at the point directly opposite them, and then rapidly propagating toward the midlines of the spheres… their “equators,” if you will.

Scaled up to Vesta size and composition, these levels of forces would have created precisely the types of deep troughs seen today running askew around Vesta’s midsection.

Watch a million-fps video of a test impact below:

So why is Vesta’s trough belt slanted? According to the researchers’ abstract, “experimental and numerical results reveal that the offset angle is a natural consequence of oblique impacts into a spherical target.” That is, the impactor that struck Vesta’s south pole likely came in at an angle, which made for uneven propagation of stress fracturing outward across the protoplanet (and smashed its south pole so much that scientists had initially said it was “missing!”)

Close-ups of Vesta's equatorial troughs obtained by Dawn's framing camera in August and September 2011. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA)
Close-ups of Vesta’s equatorial troughs obtained by Dawn’s framing camera in August and September 2011. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA)

That angle of incidence — estimated to be less than 40 degrees — not only left Vesta with a slanted belt of grooves, but also probably kept it from getting blasted apart altogether.

“Vesta was lucky,” said Schultz. “If this collision had been straight on, there would have been one less large asteroid and only a family of fragments left behind.”

Watch a video tour of Vesta made from data acquired by Dawn in 2011 and 2012 below:

The team’s findings will be published in the February 2015 issue of the journal Icarus and are currently available online here (paywall, sorry). Also you can see many more images of Vesta from the Dawn mission here and find out the latest news from the ongoing mission to Ceres on the Dawn Journal.

Source: Brown University news

Making the Moon: The Practice Crater Fields of Flagstaff, Arizona

Between the years of 1969 and 1972 the astronauts of the Apollo missions personally explored the alien landscape of the lunar surface, shuffling, bounding, digging, and roving across six sites on the Moon. In order to prepare for their off-world adventures though, they needed to practice extensively here on Earth so they would be ready to execute the long laundry lists of activities they were required to accomplish during their lunar EVAs. But where on Earth could they find the type of landscape that resembles the Moon’s rugged, dusty, and — most importantly — cratered terrain?

Enter the Cinder Lakes Crater Fields of Flagstaff, Arizona.

The Cinder Lakes Crater Fields northeast of Flagstaff, near the famous San Francisco peaks and just south of the Sunset Crater volcano, were used for Apollo-era training because of the inherently lunar-like volcanic landscape. LRV practice as well as hand tool geology and lunar morphology training were performed there, as well as ALSEP – Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package – placement and setup practice.

The photo above shows Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin driving a test LRV nicknamed Grover along the rim of a small “lunar crater.” (This particular exercise was performed on Nov. 2, 1970… 44 years ago today!)

Detonation of a "lunar crater" in 1967 (USGS)
Detonation of a “lunar crater” in 1967 (USGS)

Although the craters might look similar to the ones found on the Moon, they were actually created by the USGS in 1967 by digging holes and filling them with various amounts of explosives, which were detonated to simulate different-sized lunar impact craters. The human-made craters ranged in size from 5-40 feet (1.5-12 meters) in diameter.

The two crater field sites at Cinder Lakes were chosen because of the specific surface geology: a layer of basaltic cinders covering clay beds, left over from an eruption of the Sunset Crater volcano 950 years ago. After the explosions the excavated lighter clay material spread out from the blast craters and across the fields, like ejecta from actual meteorite impacts. A total of 497 craters were made within two sites comprising 2,000 square feet.

Detonations were done in series to simulate ejected debris from cratering events of different ages. And one of the areas of Cinder Lakes was designed to specifically replicate craters found within a particular region of the Apollo 11 Mare Tranquillitatis landing site.

Watch a contemporary educational film from the USGS showing the crater field detonations here. (HT to spaceflight archivist David S. F. Portree for the link.)

The completed Cinder Lakes Crater Field #1 in October 1967 (USGS)
The completed Cinder Lakes Crater Field #1 in October 1967 (USGS)

Today only the largest craters can be distinguished at all in the publicly-accessible Cinder Lakes field, which has become popular with ATV enthusiasts. But a smaller field, fenced off to vehicles, still contains many of the original craters used by Apollo astronauts, softened by time and weather but still visible.

A couple of other areas were used as lunar analogue training fields as well, such as the nearby Merriam Crater and Black Canyon fields — the latter of which is now covered by a housing development. Geology field training exercises by Apollo astronauts were also performed at locations in Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Iceland, Mexico, the Grand Canyon, and the lava fields of Hawaii. But only in Arizona were actual craters made to specifically simulate the Moon!

Read more about the Cinder Lakes Crater Field in a presentation document (my main article source) by LPI’s Dr. David Kring, and you can find more recent photos of the Crater Lakes sites on this page by LPI’s Jim Scotti.

Top photo research: J.L. Pickering. Source: The Project Apollo Image Archive. 

Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean during geology training at Cinder Lakes on October 10, 1969 (NASA)
Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean during geology training at Cinder Lakes on October 10, 1969 (NASA)

Tonight’s Moon-Mars-Saturn Trio Recalls Time of Terror

Check it out. Look southwest at dusk tonight and you’ll see three of the solar system’s coolest personalities gathering for a late dinner. Saturn, Mars and the waxing crescent moon will sup in Libra ahead of the fiery red star Antares in Scorpius. All together, a wonderful display of out-of-this-world worlds. 

Four dark lunar seas, also called 'maria' (MAH-ree-uh), pop out in binoculars. Four featured craters are also highlighted - the triplet of Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina and Maurolycus, named after Francesco Maurolico, a 16th century Italian scientist. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Christian LeGrande, Patrick Chevalley
Four dark lunar seas, also called ‘maria’ (MAH-ree-uh), pop out in binoculars. Four featured craters are also highlighted – the triplet of Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina and Maurolycus, named after Francesco Maurolico, a 16th century Italian scientist. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Christian LeGrande, Patrick Chevalley

If you have binoculars, take a closer look at the thick lunar crescent. Several prominent lunar seas, visible to the naked eye as dark patches, show up more clearly and have distinctly different outlines even at minimal magnification. Each is a plain of once-molten lava that oozed from cracks in the moon’s crust after major asteroid strikes 3-3.5 billion years ago.

Larger craters also come into view at 10x including the remarkable trio of Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina, each of which spans about 60 miles (96 km) across. Even in 3-inch telescope, you’ll see that Theophilus partly overlaps Cyrillus, a clear indicator that the impact that excavated the crater happened after Cyrillus formed.

Close-up of our featured trio of craters. Sharpness indicates freshness. Comparing the three, the Theophilus impact clearly happened after the others. Craters gradually become eroded over time from micrometeorite impacts, solar wind bombardment, moonquakes and extreme day-to-night temperature changes. Credit: Damian Peach
Close-up of our featured trio of craters. Sharpness indicates freshness. Comparing the three, the Theophilus impact clearly happened after the others. Craters gradually become eroded over time from micrometeorite impacts, solar wind bombardment, moonquakes and extreme day-to-night temperature changes. Credit: Damian Peach

Notice that the rim Theophilus crater is still relatively crisp and fresh compared to the older, more battered outlines of its neighbors. Yet another sign of its relative youth.

Astronomers count craters on moons and planets to arrive at relative ages of their surfaces. Few craters indicate a youthful landscape, while many overlapping ones point to an ancient terrain little changed since the days when asteroids bombarded all the newly forming planets and moons. Once samples of the moon were returned from the Apollo missions and age-dated, scientists could then assign absolute ages to particular landforms. When it comes to planets like Mars, crater counts are combined with estimates of a landscape’s age along with information about the rate of impact cratering over the history of the solar system. Although we have a number of Martian meteorites with well-determined ages, we don’t know from where on Mars they originated.

At least three different impact sequences are illustrated in this photo. Maurolycus appears to lie atop an older crater, while younger, sharp-rimmed craters pock its center and southern rim. Even a 3-inch telescope will show signs of all three ages. Credit: Damian Peach
At least three different impact sequences are illustrated in this photo. Maurolycus appears to lie atop an older crater, while younger, sharp-rimmed craters pock its center and southern rim. Even a 3-inch telescope will show signs of all three ages. Credit: Damian Peach

Another crater visible in 10x binoculars tonight is Maurolycus (more-oh-LYE-kus), a great depression 71 miles (114 km) across located in the moon’s southern hemisphere in a region rich with overlapping craters. Low-angled sunlight highlighting the crater’s rim will make it pop near the moon’s terminator, the dividing line between lunar day and night.

Like Theophilus, Maurolycus overlaps a more ancient, unnamed crater best seen in a small telescope. Notice that Maurolycus is no spring chicken either; its floor bears the scares of more recent impacts.

Putting it all into context, despite their varying relative ages, most of the moon’s craters are ancient, punched out by asteroid and comet bombardment more than 3.8 billion years ago. To look at the moon is to see a fossil record of a time when the solar system was a terrifyingly untidy place. Asteroids beat down incessantly on the young planets and moons.

Despite the occasional asteroid scare and meteorite fall, we live in relative peace now. Think what early life had to endure to survive to the present. Deep inside, our DNA still connects us to the terror of that time.

What Created This Huge Crater In Siberia?

What is it with Russia and explosive events of cosmic origins? The 1908 Tunguska Explosion, the Chelyabinsk bolide of February 2013, and now this: an enormous 80-meter 60-meter wide crater discovered in the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia!

To be fair, this crater is not currently thought to be from a meteorite impact but rather an eruption from below, possibly the result of a rapid release of gas trapped in what was once frozen permafrost. The Yamal region is rich in oil and natural gas, and the crater is located 30 km away from its largest gas field. Still, a team of researchers are en route to investigate the mysterious hole further.

Watch a video captured by engineer Konstantin Nikolaev during a helicopter flyover below:

In the video the Yamal crater/hole has what appear to be streams of dry material falling into it. Its depth has not yet been determined. (Update: latest measurements estimate the depth of the hole to be 50-70 meters. Source.)

Bill Chappell writes on NPR’s “The Two-Way”:

“The list of possible natural explanations for the giant hole includes a meteorite strike and a gas explosion, or possibly an eruption of underground ice.”

Dark material around the inner edge of the hole seems to suggest high temperatures during its formation. But rather than the remains of a violent impact by a space rock — or the crash-landing of a UFO, as some have already speculated — this crater may be a particularly explosive result of global warming.

According to The Siberian Times:

“Anna Kurchatova from Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre thinks the crater was formed by a water, salt and gas mixture igniting an underground explosion, the result of global warming. She postulates that gas accumulated in ice mixed with sand beneath the surface, and that this was mixed with salt – some 10,000 years ago this area was a sea.”

The crater is thought to have formed sometime in 2012.

Read more at The Siberian Times and NPR.

UPDATE July 17: A new video (in Russian) of the hole from the research team has come out, and apparently it’s been made clear that it’s not the result of a meteorite. Exactly what process did produce it is still unknown, but rising temperatures are still thought to be a factor. Watch below (via Sploid).

(If any Russian-speaking UT readers would like to translate what’s being said, feel free to share in the comments below.)

Also check out the latest photos from the research expedition at The Siberian Times here.

UPDATE Nov. 13: Once the water in these holes froze solid scientists were able to enter and explore the bottoms. According to an article published on The Guardian, “eighty percent of the crater appears to be made up of ice and there are no traces of a meteorite strike.”

Researchers descend into an ice-covered Yamal Crater in Siberia. Credit: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration (via Siberian Times) 
Researchers descend into an ice-covered Yamal Crater in Siberia. Credit: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration (via Siberian Times)

“As of now we don’t see anything dangerous in the sudden appearance of such holes, but we’ve got to study them properly to make absolutely sure we understand the nature of their appearance and don’t need to be afraid about them.”

– Vladimir Pushkarev, Director, Russian Center of Arctic Exploration

See more photos from inside the crater from the Russian Center of Arctic Exploration on The Siberian Times here.