When a huge dust storm on Mars—like the one in 2018—reaches its full power, it can turn into a globe-bestriding colossus. This happens regularly on Mars, and these storms usually start out as a series of smaller, runaway storms. NASA scientists say that these storms can spawn massive towers of Martian dust that reach 80 km high.
And that phenomenon might help explain how Mars lost its water.
Mars is a sandy planet and the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has given us tons of beautiful pictures of Martian sand dunes. But Mars’ dunes are much different than dunes here on Earth. Their movement is governed by different factors than Earth dunes.
One of the most profound similarities between Earth and Mars, one which makes it a popular target for research and exploration, is the presence of water ice on its surface (mainly in the form of its polar ice caps). But perhaps even more interesting is the presence of glaciers beneath the surface, which is something scientists have speculated about long before their presence was confirmed.
These caches of subsurface water could tell us a great deal about Martian history, and could even be an invaluable resource if humans ever choose to make Mars their home someday. According to a recent study by a pair of scientists from the Universities of Texas at Austin and Arizona, there are also layers of ice beneath the northern polar ice cap that could be the largest reservoir of water on the planet.
We live in a time when our spacecraft orbiting Mars at an altitude of about 300 km. can snap photos of a dust devil and transmit them back to us so we can share them on the internet. Not only that, but we have rovers wandering around on the surface taking pictures of the dust storms, too. Big deal, you say? So what, you say?
When robotic missions first began to land on the surface of Mars in the 1970s, they revealed a harsh, cold and desiccated landscape. This effectively put an end generations of speculation about “Martian canals” and the possibility of life on Mars. But as our efforts to explore the Red Planet have continued, scientists have found ample evidence that the planet once had flowing water on its surface.
In addition, scientists have been encouraged by the appearance of Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), which were believed to be signs of seasonal water flows. Unfortunately, a new study by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that these features may be the result of dry, granular flows. These findings are another indication that the environment could be too dry for microorganisms to survive.
For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from the High Resolution Image Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This same instrument was responsible for the 2011 discovery of RSL, which were found in the middle latitudes of Mars’ southern hemisphere. These features were also observed to appear on Martian slopes during late spring through summer and then fade away in winter.
The seasonal nature of these flows was seen as a strong indication that they were the result of flowing salt-water, which was indicated by the detection of hydrated salt at the sites. However, after re-examining the HiRISE data, Dundas and his team concluded that RSLs only occur on slopes that are steep enough for dry grains to descend – in much the same way that they would on the faces of active dunes.
“We’ve thought of RSL as possible liquid water flows, but the slopes are more like what we expect for dry sand. This new understanding of RSL supports other evidence that shows that Mars today is very dry.”
Using pairs of images from HiRISE, Dundas and his colleagues constructed a series of 3-D models of slope steepness. These models incorporated 151 RSL features identified by the MRO at 10 different sites. In almost all cases, they found that the RSL were restricted to slopes that were steeper than 27° and each flow ended on a slope that matched the patterns seen in slumping dry sand dunes on Mars and Earth.
Basically, sand flows end where a steep angle gives way to a less-steep “angle of repose”, whereas liquid water flows are known to extend along less steep slopes. As Alfred McEwen, HiRISE’s Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the study, indicated, “The RSL don’t flow onto shallower slopes, and the lengths of these are so closely correlated with the dynamic angle of repose, it can’t be a coincidence.”
These observations is something of a letdown, since the presence of liquid water in Mars’ equatorial region was seen as a possible indication of microbial life. However, compared to seasonal brine flows, the present of granular flows is a far better fit with what is known of Mars’ modern environment. Given that Mars’ atmosphere is very thin and cold, it was difficult to ascertain how liquid water could survive on its surface.
Nevertheless, these latest findings do not resolve all of the mystery surrounding RSLs. For example, there remains the question of how exactly these numerous flows begin and gradually grow, not to mention their seasonal appearance and the way they rapidly fade when inactive. On top of that, there is the matter of hydrated salts, which have been confirmed to contain traces of water.
To this, the authors of the study offer some possible explanations. For example, they indicate that salts can become hydrated by pulling water vapor from the atmosphere, which might explain why patches along the slopes experience changes in color. They also suggest that seasonal changes in hydration might result in some trigger mechanism for RSL grainflows, where water is absorbed and release, causing the slope to collapse.
If atmospheric water vapor is a trigger, then it raises another important question – i.e. why do RSLs appear on some slopes and not others? As Alfred McEwen – HiRISE’s Principal Investigator and a co-author on the study – explained, this could indicate that RSLs on Mars and the mechanisms behind their formation may not be entirely similar to what we see here on Earth.
“RSL probably form by some mechanism that is unique to the environment of Mars,” he said, “so they represent an opportunity to learn about how Mars behaves, which is important for future surface exploration.” Rich Zurek, the MRO Project Scientist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agrees. As he explained,
“Full understanding of RSL is likely to depend upon on-site investigation of these features. While the new report suggests that RSL are not wet enough to favor microbial life, it is likely that on-site investigation of these sites will still require special procedures to guard against introducing microbes from Earth, at least until they are definitively characterized. In particular, a full explanation of how these enigmatic features darken and fade still eludes us. Remote sensing at different times of day could provide important clues.”
In the coming years, NASA plans to carry out the exploration of several sites on the Martian surface using the Mars 2020 rover, which includes a planned sample-return mission. These samples, after being collected and stored by the rover, are expected to be retrieved by a crewed mission mounted sometime in the 2030s, and then returned to Earth for analysis.
The days when we are finally able to study the Mars’ modern environment up close are fast approaching, and is expected to reveal some pretty Earth-shattering things!
Finding a source of Martian water – one that is not confined to Mars’ frozen polar regions – has been an ongoing challenge for space agencies and astronomers alike. Between NASA, SpaceX, and every other public and private space venture hoping to conduct crewed mission to Mars in the future, an accessible source of ice would mean the ability to manufacture rocket fuel on sight and provide drinking water for an outpost.
So far, attempt to locate an equatorial source of water ice have failed. But after consulting old data from the longest-running mission to Mars in history – NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft – a team of researchers from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) announced that they may have found evidence of a source of water ice in the Medusae Fossae region of Mars.
This region of Mars, which is located in the equatorial region, is situated between the highland-lowland boundary near the Tharsis and Elysium volcanic areas. This area is known for its formation of the same name, which is a soft deposit of easily-erodible material that extends for about 5000 km (3,109 mi) along the equator of Mars. Until now, it was believed to be impossible for water ice to exist there.
However, a team led by Jack Wilson – a post-doctoral researcher at the JHUAPL – recently reprocessed data from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft that showed unexpected signals. This data was collected between 2002 and 2009 by the mission’s neutron spectrometer instrument. After reprocessing the lower-resolution compositional data to bring it into sharper focus, the team found that it contained unexpectedly high signals of hydrogen.
To bring the information into higher-resolution, Wilson and his team applied image-reconstruction techniques that are typically used to reduce blurring and remove noise from medical and spacecraft imaging data. In so doing, the team was able to improve the data’s spatial resolution from about 520 km (320 mi) to 290 km (180 mi). Ordinarily, this kind of improvement could only be achieved by getting the spacecraft much closer to the surface.
“It was as if we’d cut the spacecraft’s orbital altitude in half,” said Wilson, “and it gave us a much better view of what’s happening on the surface.” And while the neutron spectrometer did not detect water directly, the high abundance of neutrons detected by the spectrometer allowed the research team to calculate the abundance of hydrogen. At high latitudes on Mars, this is considered to be a telltale sign of water ice.
The first time the Mars Odyssey spacecraft detected abundant hydrogen was in 2002, which appeared to be coming from subsurface deposits at high latitudes around Mars. These findings were confirmed in 2008, when NASA’s Phoenix Lander confirmed that the hydrogen took the form of water ice. However, scientists have been operating under the assumption that at lower latitudes, temperatures are too high for water ice to exist.
These scans have suggested that there was either low-density volcanic deposits or water ice below the surface, though the results seemed more consistent with their being no water ice to speak of. As Wilson indicated, their results lend themselves to more than one possible explanation, but seem to indicate that water ice could part of the subsurface’s makeup:
“[I]f the detected hydrogen were buried ice within the top meter of the surface. there would be more than would fit into pore space in soil… Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain. So for now, the signature remains a mystery worthy of further study, and Mars continues to surprise us.”
Given Mars’ thin atmosphere and the temperature ranges that are common around the equator – which get as high as 308 K (35 °C; 95 °F) by midday during the summer – it is a mystery how water ice could be preserved there. The leading theory though is that a mixture of ice and dust was deposited from the polar regions in the past. This could have happened back when Mars’ axial tilt was greater than it is today.
However, those conditions have not been present on Mars for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. As such, any subsurface ice that was deposited there should be long gone by now. There is also the possibility that subsurface ice could be shielded by layers of hardened dust, but this too is insufficient to explain how water ice could have survived on the timescales involved.
In the end, the presence of abundant hydrogen in the Medusae Fossae region is just another mystery that will require further investigation. The same is true for deposits of water ice in general around the equatorial region of Mars. Such deposits mean that future missions would have a source of water for manufacturing rocket fuel.
This would shave billions of dollars of the costs of individual mission since spacecraft would not need to carry enough fuel for a return trip with them. As such, interplanetary spacecraft could be manufactured that would be smaller, lighter and faster. The presence of equatorial water ice could also be used to provide a steady supply of water for a future base on Mars.
Crews could be rotated in and out of this base once every two years – in a way that is similar to what we currently do with the International Space Station. Or – dare I say it? – a local source of water could be used to supply drinking, sanitation and irrigation water to eventual colonists! No matter how you slice it, finding an accessible source of Martian water is critical to the future of space exploration as we know it!
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.
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.”
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…
By day, Kevin Gill is a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But on nights and weekends he takes data from spacecraft and turns them into scenes that can transport you directly to the surface of Mars.
Gill is one of many so-called “amateur” image editing enthusiasts that take real, high-resolution data from spacecraft and create views that can make you feel like you are standing on the surface of Mars, or out flying around the Solar System.
Some of the best data around for these purposes come from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Data known as Digital Terrain Model (DTM) files, the HiRISE DTMs are made from two or more images of the same area of a region on Mars, taken from different angles. This data isn’t just for making stunning images or amazing movies. For scientists, DTMs are very powerful research tools, used to take measurements such a elevation information and model geological processes.
So, just how do you go from this DTM image from HiRISE:
To this amazing image?
I’m going to let Kevin explain it:
To prep the data, I use Photoshop (to convert the JP2 file to a TIFF), and then standard GIS tools like gdal (Geospatial Data Abstraction Library) to create textures for 3D modeling. Using Autodesk Maya, I input those into a material as a color texture (orthoimagery) or displacement map (the DTM data).
I connect that material to a NURBS plane (sort of like a polygon mesh) that is scaled similarly to the physical properties of the data. I set up a camera at a nice angle (it takes a number of low-resolution test renders to get an angle I like) and let it render.
Then I just pull that render into Photoshop where I have a series of monochromatic color tints which gives the image it’s Martian feel. For the sky, I use either a sky from a MSL MastCam image or one that I took outside with my cell phone. If I’m using a sky I took with my cell phone, I’ll adjust the colors to make it look more like it would on Mars. If the colors in the image are still boring at this point, I may run a HDR adjustment on it in Photoshop.
What all this means is that you can create all these amazing view, plus incredible flyover videos, like this one Kevin put together of Endeavour Crater:
Or you can have some fun and visualize where the Curiosity rover is sitting:
We’ve written about this type of image editing previously, with the work of the people at UnmannedSpaceflight.com and others. Of course, the image editing software keeps improving, along with all the techniques.
Kevin also wanted to point out the work of other image editing enthusiast, Sean Doran.
“Sean’s work is resulting in views similar to mine,” Kevin said via email. “I know he’s using a process very different from mine, but we are thinking along the same lines in what we want out of the end product. His are quite impressive.”
For example, here is a flyover video of the Opportunity rover sitting along the rim of Endeavour Crater: