Bizarre Mars: Did Lava Bubbles Wrinkle This Giant Circle?

NASA is puzzled by this “enigmatic landform” caught on camera by one of its Mars orbiters, but looking around the region provides some possible clues. This 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) feature is surrounded by relatively young lava flows, so they suspect that it could be some kind of volcanism in the Athabasca area that created this rippled surface.

“Perhaps lava has intruded underneath this mound and pushed it up from beneath. It looks as if material is missing from the mound, so it is also possible that there was a significant amount of ice in the mound that was driven out by the heat of the lava,” NASA wrote in an update on Thursday (Dec. 4).

“There are an array of features like this in the region that continue to puzzle scientists. We hope that close inspection of this … image, and others around it, will provide some clues regarding its formation.”

The picture was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a University of Arizona payload which has released a whole slew of intriguing pictures lately. We’ve collected a sample of them below.

These transverse aeolian ridges seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are caused by wind, but scientists are unsure why this image (released in December 2014) shows two wavelengths of ripples. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
These transverse aeolian ridges seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are caused by wind, but scientists are unsure why this image (released in December 2014) shows two wavelengths of ripples. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
This area south of Coprates Chasma is an example of sulfate and clay deposits on Mars, showing water once flowed readily in this region. Why the water evaporated from the Red Planet is one question scientists are hoping to answer with missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took this image (released in December 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
This area south of Coprates Chasma is an example of sulfate and clay deposits on Mars, showing water once flowed readily in this region. Why the water evaporated from the Red Planet is one question scientists are hoping to answer with missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took this image (released in December 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Arabia Terra, one of the dustiest regions on Mars, is filled with dunes such as this one captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Arabia Terra, one of the dustiest regions on Mars, is filled with dunes such as this one captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars Needs You! Help Scientists Track Spring Thaw On Red Planet

We’ve been watching Mars with spacecraft for about 50 years, but there’s still so little we know about the Red Planet. Take this sequence of images in this post recently taken by a powerful camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Spring arrives in the southern hemisphere and produces a bunch of mysteries, such as gray-blue streaks you can see in a picture below.

That’s where citizen scientists can come in, according to a recent post for the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera that took these pictures. They’re asking people with a little spare time to sign up for Planet Four (a Zooniverse project) to look at mysterious Mars features. With amateurs and professionals working together, maybe we’ll learn more about these strange changes you see below.

On Aug. 20, 2014, Martian dust mounds are on top of the araneiforms in 'Inca City', as well as dark areas on the terrain showing where the ice cap in the southern hemisphere burst and sent gas and dust into the surroundings. Fans in the area are pointing in multiple directions, showing how the wind has changed. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
On Aug. 20, 2014, Martian dust mounds are on top of the araneiforms in ‘Inca City’, as well as dark areas on the terrain showing where the ice cap in the southern hemisphere burst and sent gas and dust into the surroundings. Fans in the area are pointing in multiple directions, showing how the wind has changed. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
On Aug. 25, 2014, more fans and blotches appear on the Martian landscape around "Inca City", a location in the southern polar region, as the ice bursts in the springtime sun. Image obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
On Aug. 25, 2014, more fans and blotches appear on the Martian landscape around “Inca City”, a location in the southern polar region, as the ice bursts in the springtime sun. Image obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As of Sept. 6, 2014, fans in "Inca City" in the Martian southern hemisphere are now blue-gray. Why this color appears in the spring is unknown. It could be because of particles falling into ice underneath, or gas bursting from the ice condensing and falling as frost. It could even be a combination of the two. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As of Sept. 6, 2014, fans in “Inca City” in the Martian southern hemisphere are now blue-gray. Why this color appears in the spring is unknown. It could be because of particles falling into ice underneath, or gas bursting from the ice condensing and falling as frost. It could even be a combination of the two. Image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As spring takes hold in the southern polar region of Mars on Sept. 27, 2014, cracks are now developing in the ice at "Inca City" with multiple new dust fans appearing. Cracks develop when the ice does not have a path to easily rupture and release gas. Picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
As spring takes hold in the southern polar region of Mars on Sept. 27, 2014, cracks are now developing in the ice at “Inca City” with multiple new dust fans appearing. Cracks develop when the ice does not have a path to easily rupture and release gas. Picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 31, 2014: Bad Week in Space

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com / @ken_kremer)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 31, 2014: Bad Week in Space”

Martian Permafrost And Dust-Sculpted Surface Captured By NASA Spacecraft

Mars was once thought to be a fairly unchanging planet, similar to the Moon. But now we know it is a planet that was shaped by water and other forces in the past — and that these forces still come into play today.

Above is a picture of permafrost deposits just discovered in Louth Crater. This find comes from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and you can see some of its latest water- and dust- shaped environments imaged below.

“A still-unexplained feature of this crater is the diffuse dark smudges visible on the crater floor,” read an update on the University of Arizona HiRISE website explaining this image. “These resemble ‘defrosting spots’ which are visible on carbon dioxide ice in the early spring, but they occur on frost-free areas and survive throughout the summer.”

The frost was caught in a HiRISE image early in the summer, and it persisted as controllers watched it through the summer — indicating that it is permanent. Its size did diminish somewhat, however. Scientists are pretty sure that this is water ice, as carbon dioxide can’t survive the summer.

See more new HiRISE photos below.

A close-up of "chaotic terrain" in Valles Marineris imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Wind or fluid may have further shaped this region, which could be related to possible signs of an ancient lake found in other regions of Valles Marineris. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A close-up of “chaotic terrain” in Valles Marineris imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. Wind or fluid may have further shaped this region, which could be related to possible signs of an ancient lake found in other regions of Valles Marineris. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A section of the vast Valles Marineris ravine called Melas Chasma, a spot where sulfates (minerals formed in water) have been found before. The image shows layers of deposits that were formed before and after the formation of VAlles Marineris. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A section of the vast Valles Marineris ravine called Melas Chasma, a spot where sulfates (minerals formed in water) have been found before. The image shows layers of deposits that were formed before and after the formation of Valles Marineris. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A section of Eastern Elysium Planitia imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera showing a possible old lava field near dust avalanches stirred up more recently. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A section of Eastern Elysium Planitia imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera showing a possible old lava field near dust avalanches stirred up more recently. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

MRO Spies Tiny, Bright Nucleus During Comet Flyby of Mars

Not to be outdone by the feisty Opportunity Rover, the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) turned in its homework this evening with a fine image of comet C/2013 Siding Spring taken during closest approach on October 19. 

The highest-resolution images were acquired by HiRISE at the minimum distance of 85,750 miles (138,000 km). The image has a scale of 453 feet (138-m) per pixel.

The top set of photos uses the full dynamic range of the camera to accurately depict brightness and detail in the nuclear region and inner coma. Prior to its arrival near Mars astronomers estimated the nucleus or comet’s core diameter at around 0.6 mile (1 km). Based on these images, where the brightest feature is only 2-3 pixels across, its true size is shy of 1/3 mile or 0.5 km. The bottom photos overexpose the comet’s innards but reveal an extended coma and the beginning of a tail extending to the right.

Annotated photo of Comet Siding Spring taken by the Opportunity Rover on October 19 when near closest approach. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ASU/TAMU
Annotated photo of Comet Siding Spring taken by the Opportunity Rover on October 19 when near closest approach. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ASU/TAMU

To photograph a fast-moving target from orbit, engineers at Lockheed-Martin in Denver precisely pointed and slewed the spacecraft based on comet position calculations by engineers at JPL. To make sure they knew exactly where the comet was, the team photographed the comet 12 days in advance when it was barely bright enough to register above the detector’s noise level. To their surprise, it was not exactly where orbital calculations had predicted it to be. Using the new positions, MRO succeeded in locking onto the comet during the flyby. Without this “double check” its cameras may have missed seeing Siding Spring altogether!

Meanwhile, the Jet Propulsion Lab has released an annotated image showing the stars around the comet in the photo taken by NASA’s Opportunity Rover during closest approach. From Mars’ perspective the comet passed near Alpha Ceti in the constellation Cetus, but here on Earth we see it in southern Ophiuchus not far from Sagittarius.

Comet Siding Spring continues on its way today past the planet Mars in this photo taken on October 20. Copyright: Rolando Ligustri
Comet Siding Spring continues on its way today past the planet Mars in this photo taken on October 20. Copyright: Rolando Ligustri

“It’s excitingly fortunate that this comet came so close to Mars to give us a chance to study it with the instruments we’re using to study Mars,” said Opportunity science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, who coordinated the camera pointing. “The views from Mars rovers, in particular, give us a human perspective, because they are about as sensitive to light as our eyes would be.”

After seeing photos from both Earth and Mars I swear I’m that close to picturing this comet in 3D in my mind’s eye. NASA engineers and scientists deserve a huge thanks for their amazing and successful effort to turn rovers and spacecraft, intended for other purposes, into comet observatories in a pinch and then deliver results within 24 hours. Nice work!

Sandy Ridges Pose A Mystery For Future Martian Beach Vacations

What are these thick dune-like features on Mars, and how were they formed? Scientists are still trying to puzzle out these ridges, which you can see above in a more tropical region of the Red Planet called Iapygia, which is south of Syrtis Major. The thick ridges were captured from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), and we’ve included some more intriguing pictures below the jump.

“Called transverse aeolian ridges, or TARs, the features stand up to 6 meters tall and are spaced a few tens of meters apart. They are typically oriented transverse to modern day wind directions, and often found in channels and crater interiors,” read an update on the University of Arizona’s HiRISE blog.

“The physical process that produces these features is still mysterious. Most TARs display no evidence of internal structure, so it is difficult to discern exactly how they were formed.”

A wider view of the Iapygia region on Mars, where transverse aeolian ridges (TARs) -- dune-like features -- were spotted in 2014. PIcture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A wider view of the Iapygia region on Mars, where transverse aeolian ridges (TARs) — dune-like features — were spotted in 2014. PIcture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This picture from the NASA spacecraft was taken in Iapygia, which is south of Syrtis Major. While scientists say these look similar to TARs in other parts of the Red Planet, the features have layers on the northwest faces and a paucity on the southern side.

Scientists suggest it’s because these TARs may have had wedge-shaped layers, which hints that they would have gotten taller as material was added to the ridges. They hope to do further studies to learn more about how TARs formed in other regions on Mars.

We’ve included other recent releases from the HiRISE catalog below, so enjoy the Martian vistas!

An image of Eridania Basin, a southern region of Mars that once could been a lake or inland sea. Picture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
An image of Eridania Basin, a southern region of Mars that once could been a lake or inland sea. Picture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Scientists are still puzzling out the nature and formation of these light-toned deposits in the old Vinogradov Crater on Mars. Picture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Scientists are still puzzling out the nature and formation of these light-toned deposits in the old Vinogradov Crater on Mars. Picture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Older lava flows in Daedalia Planum on Mars. Picture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Older lava flows in Daedalia Planum on Mars. Picture taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Latest Pictures From Mars Make Us Feel Spoiled

Don’t you love it when close-up pictures come beaming to your computer from another planet? Below are some of the latest images from Mars taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

And by the way, there’s a way for you to request where HiRISE will be pointing next.

All you need to go to this page (called HiWish) and leave a suggestion for where you’d like the spacecraft to look. For some tips on what to do:

The general consensus seems to be picking a spot that is not over-popular, and trying to find a spot that HiRISE has not looked at before or very frequently. Best of luck!

To see more HiRISE images from the latest release, check out this webpage.

A HiRISE image called "Nili Patera." Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called “Nili Patera.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called "scalloped surface in Utopia region." Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called “scalloped surface in Utopia region.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called "gullied crater wall." Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called “gullied crater wall.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called "active dune gullies in Kaiser crater." Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called “active dune gullies in Kaiser crater.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called "dark-capped plain and hills in western Arabia region intercrater terrain." Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A HiRISE image called “dark-capped plain and hills in western Arabia region intercrater terrain.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Captain HiRISE, Space Detective Beams Martian History Album To Earth

Mars, that ever-changing and beautiful Red Planet practically next door to us, is one of the most well-studied places humans have in the universe. We’ve sent spacecraft there for about 50 years. Yet there’s still a lot of mysteries out there.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is among the investigating spacecraft in the area checking out the planet’s past and looking for any interesting clues to tell us more about how Mars — and the Earth, and the solar system, and planets in general — formed. Mars had a wetter past (as the rovers have showed us), but where the water went and why its atmosphere are so thin are among the things scientists are trying to understand.

Luckily for us, the catalog of the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) is easily available online for all of us to marvel at. Here are just some of the pictures sent back from across the solar system. To see more, look below and check out this HiRISE web page.

This image from Mars shows a variety of sandy features: ripples, transverse aeolian ridges (which are larger and lighter), dunes (dark) and draa (very large bedforms that are greater than 1 kilometer or 0.62 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This image from Mars shows a variety of sandy features: ripples, transverse aeolian ridges (which are larger and lighter), dunes (dark) and draa (very large bedforms that are greater than 1 kilometer or 0.62 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A Martian alluvial fan on the floor of a 60-kilometer (38-mile) crater near the equator of Mars. Scientists commonly study these features to learn more about the Red Planet's wet past. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A Martian alluvial fan on the floor of a 60-kilometer (38-mile) crater near the equator of Mars. Scientists commonly study these features to learn more about the Red Planet’s wet past. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Shiny dunes on Mars taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Shiny dunes on Mars taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Dunes migrating across the surface of Mars. Picture taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Dunes migrating across the surface of Mars. Picture taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

New Gully Appears On Mars, But It’s Likely Not Due To Water

Check out the groove! In the blink of a geological lifetime, a new gully has appeared on the planet Mars. These images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show a new channel in the southern hemisphere region of Terra Siernum that appeared between November 2010 and May 2013.

While there’s a lot of chatter about water on Mars, this particular feature is likely not due to that liquid, the agency added.

“Gully or ravine landforms are common on Mars, particularly in the southern highlands. This pair of images shows that material flowing down from an alcove at the head of a gully broke out of an older route and eroded a new channel,” NASA stated.

It’s unclear in what season the activity occurred because the observations took place more than a Martian year apart, NASA added. These ravines tend to happen in the southern highlands and other mid-latitude regions on Mars.

“Before-and-after HiRISE pairs of similar activity at other sites demonstrate that this type of activity generally occurs in winter, at temperatures so cold that carbon dioxide, rather than water, is likely to play the key role,” the agency said.

Last week, the agency also announced that MRO recovered from an unplanned computer swap that put the spacecraft into safe mode. Incidents of this nature have happened four times before, the agency noted.

Source: NASA

Are These Water Flows On Mars? Quite Possibly, New Observations Reveal

What a tangled web of water and water ice stories on Mars. There’s likely some underground. There’s definitely some at the north pole. And we are pretty certain water flowed there in the ancient past. But what about surface water today, right now, in the view of our many orbiting cameras at the Red Planet?

One hotspot of debate are flows called “recurring slope lineae”, which are features that appear in warmer temperatures. These would seem to imply some kind of briny water flowing. A team recently checked out 13 of these sites. While they didn’t find any water or salt evidence in the spectra, they did find more iron-bearing minerals on “RSL slopes” compared to those that aren’t. So what’s going on?

“We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water in RSL, although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water,” stated Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who led two reports on these features. Pictures were taken using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which is led by the University of Arizona.

Palikir Crater as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Visible are warm-season flows called "recurring slope linea" that could have been created by salty liquid water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/JHU-APL
Palikir Crater as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Visible are warm-season flows called “recurring slope linea” that could have been created by salty liquid water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/JHU-APL

It’s possible that the grains are being sorted by size (more plainly speaking, taking the fine dust away and leaving the larger grains behind), which could happen either with water or without it. Or, water might be present but not in a way that is obvious immediately if the area got darker because of moisture, or the minerals became oxidized. Water could be “missing” from these observations because they took place in the afternoon (meaning they could miss morning dew), or because the dark flows are smaller than the sample size in the picture.

While researchers still aren’t sure, the team says they still believe it’s salty water of some sort that is flowing despite very cold temperatures on Mars.

“The flow of water, even briny water, anywhere on Mars today would be a major discovery, impacting our understanding of present climate change on Mars and possibly indicating potential habitats for life near the surface on modern Mars,” said Richard Zurek, MRO project scientist who is at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

A related paper also found that RSL sites are rare on Mars, appearing in only 13 of 200 sites surveyed with similar slopes, latitudes and other features. You can read the accepted versions of the reports as they appear in Geophysical Research Letters and Icarus.