‘Glowing’ Sand Dune Erosion on the Side of a Martian Crater

While Mars is known as the Red Planet, a variety of colors can be found on the planet’s surface. Just like on Earth, the array of colors we can see in images from Mars comes from the diverse minerals on or just under the surface.

In the case of this picture, subsurface minerals show up in gullies that have eroded down the side of a a giant sand dune.   

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Here’s a Clever Idea, Looking for the Shadows of Trees On Exoplanets to Detect Multicellular Life

That’s the kind of headline that can leave us scratching our heads. How can you see tree shadows on other worlds, when those planets are tens or hundreds of light years—or even further—away. As it turns out, there might be a way to do it.

One team of researchers thinks that the idea could potentially be used to answer one of humanity’s long-standing questions: Are we alone?

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The Colorful Walls of an Exposed Impact Crater on Mars

Impact craters have been called the “poor geologists’ drill,” since they allow scientists to look beneath to the subsurface of a planet without actually digging down. It’s estimated that Mars has over 600,000 craters, so there’s plenty of opportunity to peer into the Red Planet’s strata – especially with the incredible HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been orbiting and studying Mars from above since 2006.

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Machine Learning Software is Now Doing the Exhausting Task of Counting Craters On Mars

Does the life of an astronomer or planetary scientists seem exciting?

Sitting in an observatory, sipping warm cocoa, with high-tech tools at your disposal as you work diligently, surfing along on the wavefront of human knowledge, surrounded by fine, bright people. Then one day—Eureka!—all your hard work and the work of your colleagues pays off, and you deliver to humanity a critical piece of knowledge. A chunk of knowledge that settles a scientific debate, or that ties a nice bow on a burgeoning theory, bringing it all together. Conferences…tenure…Nobel Prize?

Well, maybe in your first year of university you might imagine something like that. But science is work. And as we all know, not every minute of one’s working life is super-exciting and gratifying.

Sometimes it can be dull and repetitious.

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800 Million Years Ago, it Was Raining Asteroids on the Earth and Moon

Natural processes here on Earth continually re-shape the planet’s surface. Craters from ancient asteroid strikes are erased in a short period of time, in geological terms. So how can researchers understand Earth’s history, and how thoroughly it may have been pummeled by asteroid strikes?

Scientists can turn their attention to our ancient companion, the Moon.

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Pluto and Charon Don’t Have Enough Small Craters

In 2015, the New Horizons mission became the first robotic spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In so doing, the probe managed to capture stunning photos and valuable data on what was once considered to be the ninth planet of the Solar System (and to some, still is) and its moons. Years later, scientists are still poring over the data to see what else they can learn about the Pluto-Charon system.

For instance, the mission science team at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) recently made an interesting discovery about Pluto and Charon. Based on images acquired by the New Horizons spacecraft of some small craters on their surfaces, the team indirectly confirmed something about the Kuiper Belt could have serious implications for our models of Solar System formation.

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What Made this Mysterious Pit on Mars? Impact Crater or Natural Collapse?

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique "Swiss cheese" like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique "Swiss cheese" like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique “Swiss cheese” like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

During late summer in the Southern hemisphere on Mars, the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the surface brings out some subtle details on the planet’s surface.

In this image, the HiRISE camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured an area of frozen carbon dioxide on the surface. Some of the carbon dioxide ice has melted, giving it a swiss-cheese appearance. But there is also an unusual hole or crater on the right side of the image, with some of the carbon dioxide ice clearly visible in the bottom of the pit.

NASA scientists are uncertain what exactly caused the unusual pit. It could be an impact crater, or it could be a collapsed pit caused by melting or sublimation of sub-surface carbon dioxide ice.

MRO has been in orbit around Mars for over 10 years, and has completed over 50,000 orbits. The MRO has two cameras. The CTX camera is lower resolution, and has imaged over 99% of the Martian surface. HiRISE is the high-resolution camera that is used to closely examine areas and objects of interest, like the unusual surface pit in this image.

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Asteroid Strikes on Mars Spun Out Supersonic Tornadoes that Scoured the Surface

The study of another planet’s surface features can provide a window into its deep past. Take Mars for example, a planet whose surface is a mishmash of features that speak volumes. In addition to ancient volcanoes and alluvial fans that are indications of past geological activity and liquid water once flowing on the surface, there are also the many impact craters that dot its surface.

In some cases, these impact craters have strange bright streaks emanating from them, ones which reach much farther than basic ejecta patterns would allow. According to a new research study by a team from Brown University, these features are the result of large impacts that generated massive plumes. These would have interacted with Mars’ atmosphere, they argue, causing supersonic winds that scoured the surface.

These features were noticed years ago by Professor Peter H. Schultz, a professor of geological science with the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences (DEEPS) at Brown University. When studying images taken at night by the Mars Odyssey orbiter using its THEMIS instrument, he noticed steaks that only appeared when imaged in the infrared wavelength.

Artist’s conception of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

These streaks were only visible in IR because it was only at this wavelength that contrasts in heat retention on the surface were visible. Essentially, brighter regions at night indicate surfaces that retain more heat during the day and take longer to cool. As Schultz explained in a Brown University press release, this allowed for features to be discerned that would otherwise not be noticed:

“You couldn’t see these things at all in visible wavelength images, but in the nighttime infrared they’re very bright. Brightness in the infrared indicates blocky surfaces, which retain more heat than surfaces covered by powder and debris. That tells us that something came along and scoured those surfaces bare.”

Along with Stephanie N. Quintana, a graduate student from DEEPS, the two began to consider other explanations that went beyond basic ejecta patterns. As they indicate in their study – which recently appeared in the journal Icarus under the title “Impact-generated winds on Mars” – this consisted of combining geological observations, laboratory impact experiments and computer modeling of impact processes. 

Ultimately, Schultz and Quintana concluded that crater-forming impacts led to vortex-like storms that reached speeds of up to 800 km/h (500 mph) – in other words, the equivalent of an F8 tornado here on Earth. These storms would have scoured the surface and ultimately led to the observed streak patterns. This conclusion was based in part on work Schultz has done in the past at NASA’s Vertical Gun Range.

An infrared image revealing strange bright streaks extending from Santa Fe crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University.

This high-powered cannon, which can fire projectiles at speeds up to 24,000 km/h (15,000 mph), is used to conduct impact experiments. These experiments have shown that during an impact event, vapor plumes travel outwards from the impact point (just above the surface) at incredible speeds. For the sake of their study, Schultz and Quintana scaled the size of the impacts up, to the point where they corresponded to the impact craters on Mars.

The results indicated that the vapor plume speed would be supersonic, and that its interaction with the Martian atmosphere would generate powerful winds. However, the plume and associated winds would not be responsible for the strange streaks themselves. Since they would be travelling just above the surface, they would not be capable of causing the kind of deep scouring that exists in the streaked areas.

Instead, Schultz and Quintana showed that when the plume struck a raised surface feature – like the ridges of a smaller impact crater – it would create more powerful vortices that would then fall to the surface. It is these, according to their study, that are responsible for the scouring patterns they observed. This conclusion was based on the fact that bright streaks were almost always associated with the downward side of a crater rim.

IR images showing the correlation between the streaks and smaller craters that were in place when the larger crater was formed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

As Schultz explained, the study of these streaks could prove useful in helping to establish that rate at which erosion and dust deposition occurs on the Martian surface in certain areas:

“Where these vortices encounter the surface, they sweep away the small particles that sit loose on the surface, exposing the bigger blocky material underneath, and that’s what gives us these streaks. We know these formed at the same time as these large craters, and we can date the age of the craters. So now we have a template for looking at erosion.”

In addition, these streaks could reveal additional information about the state of Mars during the time of impacts. For example, Schultz and Quintana noted that the streaks appear to form around craters that are about 20 km (12.4 mi) in diameter, but not always. Their experiments also revealed that the presence of volatile compounds (such as surface or subsurface water ice) would affect the amount of vapor generated by an impact.

In other words, the presence of streaks around some craters and not others could indicate where and when there was water ice on the Martian surface in the past. It has been known for some time that the disappearance of Mars’ atmosphere over the course of several hundred million years also resulted in the loss of its surface water. By being able to put dates to impact events, we might be able to learn more about Mars’ fateful transformation.

The study of these streaks could also be used to differentiate between the impacts of asteroids and comets on Mars – the latter of which would have had higher concentrations of water ice in them. Once again, detailed studies of Mars’ surface features are allowing scientists to construct a more detailed timeline of its evolution, thus determining how and when it became the cold, dry place we know today!

Further Reading: Brown University, Science Direct