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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.”
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.