Here’s Perseverance, Seen From Space

The Mars Perseverance rover is on the move! The HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the rover from above, the first view since shortly after the rover landed in February 2021. Perseverance appears as the white speck in the center of the image above, in the the “South Séítah” area of Mars’ Jezero Crater.

The HiRISE team said the rover is about 700 meters (2,300 feet) from its original landing site.

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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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Sediments on Mars, Created By Blowing Wind or Flowing Water

The HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has given us a steady stream of images of the Martian surface. It’s been in orbit around Mars since March 2006, and has greatly outlived its intended mission length.

One of the latest Hi-PODs, or HiRISE Pictures of the Day, is this one, of sedimentary rock on Mars being eroded away.

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Ever Wondered What Final Approach To Mars Might Feel Like?

We’ve posted several ‘flyover’ videos of Mars that use data from spacecraft. But this video might be the most spectacular and realistic. Created by filmmaker Jan Fröjdman from Finland, “A Fictive Flight Above Real Mars” uses actual data from the venerable HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and takes you on a 3-D tour over steep cliffs, high buttes, amazing craters, polygons and other remarkable land forms. But Fröjdman also adds a few features reminiscent of the landing videos taken by the Apollo astronauts. Complete with crosshatches and thruster firings, this video puts you on final approach to land on (and then take off from) Mars’ surface.

(Hit ‘fullscreen’ for the best viewing)

To create the video, Fröjdman used 3-D anaglyph images from HiRISE (High Resolution Science Imaging Experiment), which contain information about the topography of Mars surface and then processed the images into panning video clips.

Fröjdman told Universe Today he worked on this video for about three months.

“The most time consuming was to manually pick the more than 33,000 reference points in the anaglyph images,” he said via email. “Now when I count how many steps there were in total in the process, I come to seven and I needed at least 6 different kinds of software.”

A new impact crater that was formed between July 2010 and May 2012, as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This image is part of “A Fictive Flight Above Real Mars” by Jan Fröjdman. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Fröjdman, a landscape photographer and audiovisual expert, said he wanted to create a video that gives you the feeling “that you are flying above Mars looking down watching interesting locations on the planet,” he wrote on Vimeo. “And there are really great places on Mars! I would love to see images taken by a landscape photographer on Mars, especially from the polar regions. But I’m afraid I won’t see that kind of images during my lifetime.”

Between HiRISE and the Curiosity rover images, we have the next best thing to a human on Mars. But maybe one day…

Fröjdman has previously posted other space-related videos, including video and images of the Transit of Venus in 2012 he took from an airplane, and a lunar eclipse in 2011.

A FICTIVE FLIGHT ABOVE REAL MARS from Jan Fröjdman on Vimeo.

JPL Needs Citizen Scientists To Hunt Martian Polygonal Ridges

Mars has some impressive geological features across its cold, desiccated surface, many of which are similar to featured found here on Earth. By studying them, scientists are able to learn more about the natural history of the Red Planet, what kinds of meteorological phenomena are responsible for shaping it, and how similar our two planets are. A perfect of example of this are the polygon-ridge networks that have been observed on its surface.

One such network was recently discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the Medusae Fossae region, which straddles the planet’s equator. Measuring some 16 story’s high, this ridge network is similar to others that have been spotted on Mars. But according to a survey produced by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these ridges likely have different origins.

This survey, which was recently published in the journal Icarus, examined both the network found in the Medusae Fossae region and similar-looking networks in other regions of the Red Planet. These ridges (sometimes called boxwork rides), are essentially blade-like walls that look like multiple adjoining polygons (i.e. rectangles, pentagons, triangles, and similar shapes).

 Shiprock, a ridge-feature in northwestern New Mexico that is 10 meters (30 feet) tall, which formed from lava filling an underground fracture that resisted erosion better than the material around it did. Credit: NASA

While similar-looking ridges can be found in many places on Mars, they do not appear to be formed by any single process. As Laura Kerber, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the survey report, explained in a NASA press release:

“Finding these ridges in the Medusae Fossae region set me on a quest to find all the types of polygonal ridges on Mars… Polygonal ridges can be formed in several different ways, and some of them are really key to understanding the history of early Mars. Many of these ridges are mineral veins, and mineral veins tell us that water was circulating underground.”

Such ridges have also been found on Earth, and appear to be the result of various processes as well. One of the most common involves lava flowing into preexisting fractures in the ground, which then survived when erosion stripped the surrounding material away. A good example of this is the Shiprock (shown above), a monadrock located in San Juan County, New Mexico.

Examples of polygon ridges on Mars include the feature known as “Garden City“, which was discovered by the Curiosity rover mission. Measuring just a few centimeters in height, these ridges appeared to be the result of mineral-laden groundwater moving through underground fissures, which led to standing mineral veins once the surrounding soil eroded away.

Mineral veins at the “Garden City” site, examined by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL

At the other end of the scale, ridges that measure around 2 kilometers (over a mile) high have also been found. A good example of this is “Inca City“, a feature observed by the Mars Global Surveyor near Mars’ south pole. In this case, the feature is believed to be the result of underground faults (which were formed from impacts) filling with lava over time. Here too, erosion gradually stripped away the surrounding rock, exposing the standing lava rock.

In short, these features are evidence of underground water and volcanic activity on Mars. And by finding more examples of these polygon-ridges, scientists will be able to study the geological record of Mars more closely. Hence why Kerber is seeking help from the public through a citizen-science project called Planet Four: Ridges.

Established earlier this month on Zooniverse – a volunteer-powered research platform – this project has made images obtained by the MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) available to the public. Currently, this and other projects using data from CTX and HiRISE have drawn the participation of more than 150,000 volunteers from around the world.

By getting volunteers to sort through the CTX images for ridge formations, Kerber and her team hopes that previously-unidentified ones will be identified and that their relationship with other Martian features will be better understood.

Further Reading: NASA

Martian Spacecraft Spies Earth and the Moon

The incredible HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter turned its eyes away from its usual target – Mars’ surface – and for calibration purposes only, took some amazing images of Earth and our Moon. Combined to create one image, this is a marvelous view of our home from about 127 million miles (205 million kilometers) away.

Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for HiRISE said the image is constructed from the best photo of Earth and the best photo of the Moon from four sets of images. Interestingly, this combined view retains the correct positions and sizes of the two bodies relative to each other. However, Earth and the Moon appear closer than they actually are in this image because the observation was planned for a time at which the Moon was almost directly behind Earth, from Mars’ point of view, to see the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

A view of Earth and its Moon, as seen from Mars. It combines two images acquired on Nov. 20, 2016, by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with brightness adjusted separately for Earth and the moon to show details on both bodies. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.

“Each is separately processed prior to combining (in correct relative positions and sizes), so that the Moon is bright enough to see,” McEwen wrote on the HiRISE website. “The Moon is much darker than Earth and would barely show up at all if shown at the same brightness scale as Earth. Because of this brightness difference, the Earth images are saturated in the best Moon images, and the Moon is very faint in the best (unsaturated) Earth image.”

Earth looks reddish because the HiRISE imaging team used color filters similar to the Landsat images where vegetation appears red.

“The image color bandpasses are infrared, red, and blue-green, displayed as red, green, and blue, respectively,” McEwen explained. “The reddish blob in the middle of the Earth image is Australia, with southeast Asia forming the reddish area (vegetation) near the top; Antarctica is the bright blob at bottom-left. Other bright areas are clouds. We see the western near-side of the Moon.”

HiRISE took these pictures on Nov. 20, 2016, and this is not the first time HiRISE has turned its eyes towards Earth.
Back in 2007, HiRISE took this image, below, from Mars’ orbit when it was just 88 million miles (142 million km) from Earth. This one is more like how future astronauts might see Earth and the Moon through a telescope from Mars’ orbit.

An image of Earth and the Moon, acquired on October 3, 2007, by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

If you look closely, you can make out a few features on our planet. The west coast outline of South America is at lower right on Earth, although the clouds are the dominant features. In fact, the clouds were so bright, compared with the Moon, that they almost completely saturated the filters on the HiRISE camera. The people working on HiRISE say this image required a fair amount of processing to make such a nice-looking picture.

You can see an image from a previous Mars’ orbiter, the Mars Global Surveyor, that took a picture of Earth, the Moon and Jupiter — all in one shot — back in 2003 here.

See this JPL page for high resolution versions of the most recent Earth/Moon image.

Spiders Growing on the Surface of Mars Right Before Our Eyes!

For years, scientists have understood that in Mars’ polar regions, frozen carbon dioxide (aka. dry ice) covers much of the surface during the winter. During the spring, this ice sublimates in places, causing the ice to crack and jets of CO² to spew forth. This leads to the formation of dark fans and features known as “spiders”, both of which are unique to Mars’ southern polar region.

For the past decade, researchers have failed to see these features changing from year-to-year, where repeated thaws have led to their growth. However, using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter‘s (MRO) HiRISE camera, a research team from the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona have managed to catch sight of the cumulative growth of a spider for the first time from one spring to the next.

Spiders are so-named because of their appearance, where multiple channels converge on a central pit. Dark fans, on the other hand, are low-albedo patches that are darker than the surrounding ice sheet. For some time, astronomers have been observed these features in the southern polar region of Mars, and multiple theories were advanced as to their origin.

mars-landscape-araneiforms-fans-pia21258-br2
HiRISE images of the Martian landscape, showing outgassing and the formation of dark fans and “spiders”. Credit: NASA/JPL

In 2007, Hugh Kieffer of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado theorized that the dark fans and spiders were linked, and that both features were the result of spring thaws. In short, during Mars’ spring season – when the southern polar region is exposed to more sunlight – the Sun’s rays penetrates the ice sheets and warm the ground underneath.

This causes gas flows to form beneath the ice that build up pressure, eventually causing the ice to crack and triggering geysers. These geysers deposit mineral dust and sand across the surface downwind from the eruption, while the cracks in the ice grow and become visible from orbit. While this explanation has been widely-accepted, scientists have been unable to observe this process in action.

By using data from the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), the research team was able to spot a small-channeled troughs in the southern region which persisted and grew over a three year period. In addition to closely resembling spidery terrain, it was in proximity to dark fan sites. From this, they determined that they were witnessing a spider that was in the process of formation.

As Dr. Ganna Portyankina – a researcher from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the lead author on the team’s research paper – explained to Universe Today via email,

“We have observed different changes in the surface caused by CO² jets before. However, they all were either seasonal changes in surface albedo, like dark fans, or they were only short-lived and were gone the next year, like furrows. This time, the troughs have stayed over several years and they develop dendritic-type of extension – right the way we expect the large spiders to develop.”  

Spiders trace a delicate pattern on top of the residual polar cap, after the seasonal carbon-dioxide ice slab has disappeared. Next spring, these will likely mark the sites of vents when the CO2 icecap returns. This MOC image is about 2 miles wide. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS
Spiders trace a delicate pattern on top of the residual polar cap, after the seasonal carbon-dioxide ice slab has disappeared. Next spring, these will likely mark the sites of vents when the CO2 icecap returns. This MOC image is about 2 miles wide. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

Furrows that were similar to the spidery terrain have been spotted at Mars’ north pole in the past, which coincided with a Martian spring. On these occasions, scientists using data from HiRISE instrument reported seeing small furrows on sand dunes, where eruptions had deposited dark fans. However, in what is typical of northern furrows, these were non-persisting annual occurrences, disappearing when summer winds deposited sand in them.

In contrast, the troughs Dr. Portyankina and her team observed in the southern polar region were persistent over a three-year period. During this time, these features extended and developed new “tributaries”, forming a dendritic pattern that resembled a Martian spider. From this, they concluded that the previously-observed northern furrows have the same cause – i.e. sublimation causing outgassing.

However, they also concluded that the northern furrows do not develop over time because of the high-mobility of dune material in the northern polar region. The difference, it seems, comes down to the presence of erosive sand material in the north and south, which creates (or starts) the erosive process that leads to the formation of spider-like troughs – which both kick-stars the process but can also erase it.

“Many locations in the south polar regions with seasonal dark fans show no visible sand deposits,” said Dr. Portyankina. “Dark fans in those locations might be only a mix of regolith and dust, or even just dust on its own – as it is really everywhere on Mars… [T]hose locations that have sand will experience higher erosion simply because there is granular material in the gas flow. Basically, it is old simple sandblasting. This means, it must be easier and faster to carve spiders in those locations.”

Dark spots (left) and fans scribble dusty hieroglyphics on top of the Martian south polar cap in two high-resolution MOC images taken in southern spring. Each image is about 2 miles wide. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS
Images of dark spots (left) and fans (right) observed on top of the Martian south polar cap taken in southern spring. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

In other words, where sand exists beneath the ice sheet, the ground beneath that is likely to be rockier (i.e. harder)> The formation of spider terrain may thereofre require that the ground beneath the ice be soft enough to be carved, but not so loose that it will refill the channels during a single seasonal cycle. In short, the formation of spidery terrain appears to be dependent upon the difference in surface composition between the poles.

In addition, from the many year’s of HiRISE data that has been accumulated, Dr. Portyankina and her team were also able to gauge the current rate of erosion in Mars’ southern polar region. Ultimately, they estimated that smaller spider-like furrows would require a thousand Martian years (about 1,900 Earth years) in order to become a full-scale spider.

This study is certainly significant, since understanding how seasonal changes and present-day erosion lead to the creation of new topographical features is important when it comes to understanding the processes that shape Mars’ polar regions. As we get closer and closer to the day when crewed missions and even settlement become a reality, knowing how these processes shape the planet will be fundamental to making a go of things on Mars.

Further Reading: NASA, Icarus

HiRISE Drops 1,000 Stunning New Mars Images For Your Viewing Pleasure

We frequently call the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter “our favorite camera” and for good reason. HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, is the largest and most powerful camera ever flown on a planetary mission, sending back incredibly beautiful, high-resolution images of Mars. While previous cameras on other Mars orbiters can identify objects about the size of a school bus, HiRISE brings it to human scale, imaging objects as small as 3 feet (1 meter) across.

The HiRISE team has just released more than 1,000 new observations of Mars for the Planetary Data System archive, showing a wide range of gullies, dunes, craters, geological layering and other features on the Red Planet. Take a look at some of the highlights (click on each image for higher resolution versions and more info):

Chloride and Paleo Dunes in Terra Sirenum. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.
Chloride and Paleo Dunes in Terra Sirenum. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

MRO orbits at about 300 km above the Martian surface. The width of a HiRISE image covers about about 6 km, with a 1.2 km strip of color in the center. The length of the images can be up to 37 km. If you click on each of these images here, or go to the HiRISE website, you can see the full images in all their glory. To fully appreciate the images, you can download the special HiView application, which allows you to see the images in various formats.

Dunes Within Arkhangelsky Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Dunes Within Arkhangelsky Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

HiRISE has been nicknamed “The People’s Camera“ because the team allows the public to choose specific targets for the camera to image. Check out the HiWISH page here if you’d like a certain spot on Mars imaged.

Crater Near Hydaspis Chaos. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.
Crater Near Hydaspis Chaos. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

The lead image (the link to the image on the HiRISE site is here) shows a possible recurring slope lineae (RSL), mysterious dark streaks on slopes that appeared to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. One possibility is this is evidence of liquid water present on Mars today. Some scientists said it could be a salty, briny liquid water flowing down the slopes. But a recent analysis says the RSLs show no mineralogical evidence for abundant liquid water or its by-products, and so it might be mechanisms other than the flow of water — such as the freeze and thaw of carbon dioxide frost — as being the major drivers of recent RSLs.

Check out the full release of images from August 2016 here.