Every year during Mars’ summer solstice, a cloud of water ice forms on the leeward side of Arsia Mons, one of Mars’ largest extinct volcanoes. The cloud can grow to be up to 1800 km (1120 miles) long. It forms each morning, then disappears the same day, only to reappear the next morning. Researchers have named it the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud (AMEC).
We love flyover videos from other worlds. These stunning videos, created from imagery gathered by orbiting spacecraft, can give us a sense of what it would be like to fly in an airplane on another planet. This latest flyover video from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, provides a stunning view of one of Mars’ most eye-popping craters.
A new image from the ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter shows exactly how different regions in Mars are from one another. From the cloudy northern polar region all the way to the Helles Planitia down in the south, Mars is a puzzle of different terrain types. At the heart of it all is what’s known as the Martian dichotomy.
If you’re not a chemist, an astrobiologist, or a scientist of any sort, and that includes most of us, then a tiny, almost imperceptible whiff of methane in the Martian atmosphere might seem like no big deal. But it is, gentle humans. It is.
Because it could be a signal that some living process is at work. And even we non-scientists have wondered at some point if the only life in the Solar System, or maybe in the entire Universe, is confined here on Earth.
Billions of years ago, Mars was likely a much warmer and wetter place than the cold, dry, barren world we see today. Whether there was life there or not remains an open question. But there’s a massive, growing wall of evidence showing that Mars may have had the necessary conditions for life in the past, including at least one system of river valley networks.
On June 2nd, 2003, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission left Earth to begin its journey to Mars. Six months later (on December 25th) the spacecraft fired its main engine and entered orbit around Mars. This Christmas will therefore mark the fifteenth anniversary of the orbiter’s arrival and all the observations it has made of the Red Planet since then.
Appropriately, the Mars Express mission was able to commemorate this occasion by capturing some beautiful photos of a Martian crater that remains filled with ice all year round. This feature is known as the Korolev crater, which measures 82 km (51 mi) in diameter and is located in the northern lowlands, just south of the northern polar ice cap.
In 2003, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Center made the first-ever detection of trace amounts of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, a find which was confirmed a year later by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. In December of 2014, the Curiosity rover detected a tenfold spike of methane at the base of Mount Sharp, and later uncovered evidence that Mars has a seasonal methane cycle, where levels peak in the late northern summer.
Since it’s discovery, the existence of methane on Mars has been considered one of the strongest lines of evidence for the existence of past or present life. So it was quite the downer last week (on Dec. 12th) when the science team behind one of the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spectrometers announced that they had found no traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere.
According to evidence gathered by multiple robotic orbiters, rovers, and landers over the course of several decades, scientists understand that Mars was once a warmer, watery place. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this began to change. As Mars magnetic field disappeared, the atmosphere slowly began to be stripped away by solar wind, leaving the surface the cold and dry and making it impossible for water to exist in liquid form.
While much of the planet’s water is now concentrated in the polar ice caps, scientists have speculated some of Mars’ past water could still be located underground. Thanks to a new study by a team of Italian scientists, it has now been confirmed that liquid water still exists beneath Mars’ southern polar region. This discovery has put an end to a fifteen-year mystery and bolstered the potential for future missions to Mars.
So far, robotic missions have revealed considerable evidence of past water on Mars. These include dried-out river valleys and gigantic outflow channels discovered by orbiters, and evidence of mineral-rich soils that can only form in the presence of liquid water by rovers and landers. Early evidence from the ESA’s Mars Express probe has also showed that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is buried in the layers interspersed with dust.
However, scientists have long suspected that liquid water could exist beneath the polar ice caps, much in the same way that liquid water is believed to underlie glaciers here on Earth. In addition, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of subsurface water and keep it in a liquid state, despite the sub-zero temperatures present on both the surface and underground.
For many years, data from the Mars Express’Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument – which has been used to study the southern polar region – has remained inconclusive. Like all ground-penetrating radar, this instrument relies on radar pulses to map surface topography and determine the properties of the materials that lie beneath the surface.
Luckily, after considerable analysis, the study team was able to develop new techniques that allowed them to collect enough high-resolution data to confirm the presence of liquid water beneath the southern ice cap. As Andrea Cicchetti, the MARSIS operations manager and a co-author on the new paper, indicated:
“We’d seen hints of interesting subsurface features for years but we couldn’t reproduce the result from orbit to orbit, because the sampling rates and resolution of our data was previously too low. We had to come up with a new operating mode to bypass some onboard processing and trigger a higher sampling rate and thus improve the resolution of the footprint of our dataset: now we see things that simply were not possible before.”
What they found was that the southern polar region is made of many layers of ice and dust down to a depth of about 1.5 km over a 200 km-wide area, and featured an anomalous area measuring 20-km wide. As Roberto Orosei, the principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments. This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered.”
After analyzing the properties of the reflected radar signals and taking into account the composition of the layered deposits and expected temperature profiles below the surface, the scientists concluded that the 20-km wide feature is an interface between the ice and a stable body of liquid water. For MARSIS to be able to detect such a patch of water, it would need to be at least several tens of centimeters thick.
These findings also raise the possibility of there being life on Mars, both now and in the past. This is based on research that found microbial life in Lake Vostok, which is located some 4 km (2.5 mi) below the ice in Antarctica. If life can thrive in salty, subglacial environments on Earth, then it is possible that they could survive on Mars as well. Determining if this is the case will be the purpose of existing and future missions to Mars.
As Dmitri Titov, one of the Mars Express project scientist, explained:
“The long duration of Mars Express, and the exhausting effort made by the radar team to overcome many analytical challenges, enabled this much-awaited result, demonstrating that the mission and its payload still have a great science potential. This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbour planet and its habitability.”
The Mars Express launched on June 2nd, 2003, and will celebrate 15 years in orbit of Mars by December 25th this year. In the coming years, it will be joined by the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover, and a number of other scientific experiments. These missions will pave the way for a potential crewed mission, which NASA is planning to mount by the 2030s.
If there is indeed liquid water to be found on Mars, it will go a long way towards facilitating future research and even an ongoing human presence on the surface. And if there is still life on Mars, the careful research of its ecosystems will help address the all-important question of how and when life emerged in the Solar System.
The weather patterns on Mars are rather fascinating, owing to their particular similarities and differences with those of Earth. For one, the Red Planet experiences dust storms that are not dissimilar to storms that happen regularly here on Earth. Due to the lower atmospheric pressure, these storms are much less powerful than hurricanes on Earth, but can grow so large that they cover half the planet.
Recently, the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter captured images of the towering cloud front of a dust storm located close to Mars’ northern polar region. This storm, which began in April 2018, took place in the region known as Utopia Planitia, close to the ice cap at the Martian North Pole. It is one of several that have been observed on Mars in recent months, one which is the most severe to take place in years.
The images (shown above and below) were created using data acquired by the Mars Express‘ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The camera system is operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and managed to capture images of this storm front – which would prove to be the harbinger of the Martian storm season – on April 3rd, 2018, during its 18,039th orbit of Mars.
This storm was one of several small-scale dust storms that have been observered in recent months on Mars. A much larger storm emerged further southwest in the Arabia Terra region, which began in May of 2018 and developed into a planet-wide dust storm within several weeks.
Dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.
Since the southern polar region is pointed towards the Sun in the summer, carbon dioxide frozen in the polar cap evaporates. This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increases surface pressure, which enhances the storms by helping to suspend dust particles in the air. Though they are common and can begin suddenly, Martian dust storms typically stay localized and last only a few weeks.
While local and regional dust storms are frequent, only a few of them develop into global phenomena. These storms only occur every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years) and can persist for several months. Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001).
In 2007, a large storm covered the planet and darkened the skies over where the Opportunity rover was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications. The most recent storm, which began back in May, has been less intense, but managed to create a state of perpetual night over Opportunity’s location in Perseverance Valley.
As a result, the Opportunity team placed the rover into hibernation mode and shut down communications in June 2018. Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity rover continues to explore the surface of Mars, thanks to its radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which does not rely on solar panels. By autumn, scientists expect the dust storm will weaken significantly, and are confident Opportunity will survive.
Understanding how global storms form and evolve on Mars will be critical for future solar-powered missions. It will also come in handy when crewed missions are conducted to the planet, not to mention space tourism and colonization!
The ESA’s Mars Express probe has been studying Mars and its Moons for many years. While there are several missions currently in orbit around Mars, Mars Express‘s near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages over the others. For one, its orbital path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, which allows it to periodically observe the moon from distances of around 150 km (93 mi).
Because of this, the probe is in an ideal position to study Mars’ moons and capture images of them. On occasion, this allows for some interesting photo opportunities. For example, in November of 2017, while taking pictures of Phobos and Deimos, the probe spotted Saturn in the background. This fortuitous event led to the creation of some beautiful images, which were put together to produce a video.
Since 2003, Mars Express has been studying Phobos and Deimos in the hopes of learning more about these mysterious objects. While it has learned much about their size, appearance and position, much remains unknown about their composition, how and where they formed, and what their surface conditions are like. To answer these questions, the probe has been conducting regular flybys of these moons and taking pictures of them.
The video that was recently released by the ESA combines 30 such images which show Phobos passing through the frame. In the background, Saturn is visible as a small ringed dot, despite being roughly 1 billion km away. The images that were used to create this video were taken by the probes High Resolution Stereo Camera on November 26th, 2016, while the probe was traveling at a speed of about 3 km/s.
This photobomb was not unexpected, since the Mars Express repeatedly uses background reference stars and other bodies in the Solar System to confirm positions of the moons in the sky. In so doing, the probe is able to calculate the position of Phobos and Deimos with an accuracy of up to a few kilometers. The probes ideal position for capturing detailed images has also helped scientists to learn more about the surface features and structure of the two moons.
For instance, the pictures taken during the probe’s close flybys of Phobos showed its bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail.The moon’s largest impact crater – the Stickney Crater – is also visible in one of the frames. Measuring 9 km ( mi) in diameter, this crater accounts for a third of the moon’s diameter, making it one the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System.
In another image, taken on January 15th, 2018, Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground, while the delicate rings of Saturn are just visible encircling the small dot in the background (see below). In addition, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos set against a reference star on January 8th, 2018 (see above) and close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on September 12th, 2017.
In the future, the Mars Express probe is expected to reveal a great deal more about Mars’ system of moons. In addition to the enduring questions of their origins, formation and composition, there are also questions about where future missions could land in order to study the surface directly. In particular, Phobos has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission.
Because of its nearness to Mars and the fact that one side is always facing towards the planet, the moon could make for an ideal location for a permanent observation post. This post would allow for the long-term study of the Martian surface and atmosphere, could act as a communications relay for other spacecraft, and could even serve as a base for future missions to the surface.
If and when such a mission to Phobos becomes a reality, it is the Mars Express probe that will determine where the ideal landing site would be. In essence, by studying the Martian moons to learning more about them, Mars Express is helping to prepare future missions to the Red Planet.
Be sure to check out the time-lapse video of Phobos and Saturn, courtesy of the ESA: