Huge Dust Devil on Mars Captured in Action

A towering dust devil, casts a serpentine shadow over the Martian surface in this image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona


Mars orbiters, rovers and landers have all captured devils in action before. But this latest shot is a whopper (to speak in the vernacular of the peasantry…*) – not to mention incredibly awesome! The HiRISE camera (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken an image of an afternoon whirlwind on Mars lofting a twisting column of dust more than 800 meters (about a half a mile) high, with the dust plume about 30 meters or yards in diameter.

HiRISE captured the image on Feb. 16, 2012, in the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars. Evidence of many previous whirlwinds, or dust devils, are visible as streaks on the dusty surface shown in the image.

Scientists from JPL said the active dust devil and its delicate arc were produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height.

Just like on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. However, Mars is now farthest from the Sun, and even though the exposure to the Sun’s rays is now less, even so, the dust devils are moving dust around on Mars’ surface.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

MRO and HiRISE continue to provide insights into the planet’s ancient environments and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts and seasonal frosts continue to affect the Martian surface today. This mission – operating since 2006 in Mars orbit – has returned more data about Mars than all other orbital and surface missions combined.

See more images on the HiRISE website.

Source: JPL

*A free subscription to Universe Today for anyone who can name where that quote is from.

Can You Find the Lost Soviet Mars 6 Lander in this Image?

The 'lost' Soviet Mars 6 lander may be somewhere in this image. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


Mars could be considered a spacecraft graveyard. The planet is just a hard place to get to – and especially land on — and there are several ‘lost’ spacecraft lying somewhere on Mars’ surface. The Soviet Mars 6 lander arrived at Mars on March 12, 1974. The records detail that the descent module entered the atmosphere and the parachute opened at 09:08:32 UT, and during that time, the craft was collecting and returning data. However, contact with the descent module was lost at 09:11:05 UT, about the time it was expected to reach the surface.

“Because we know that the parachute opened and have some idea where it was headed, we have a chance of locating the hardware on the surface with HiRISE,” said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

And it may be in this image, as it would be in approximately the right region of where Mars 6 was supposed to land. In fact, hopes were raised when an anomalous small bright patch was seen by MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) team, and then a CTX team member suggested this area as a target for HiRISE.

McEwen said that since bright parachutes were the easiest thing to spot on the ground at 5 of the 6 past successful landing sites, but as you can see in this subimage, the bright spot at full HiRISE resolution appears to be just “a patch of relatively bright bedrock, with a pattern of thin lines (fractures) typical of such outcrops.”

But after nearly 38 years, the parachute and hardware may be covered by dust and look much like natural features on Mars.

“We’ll keep trying to find this and other failed landers,” McEwen said, “but there is a lot of surface area to cover on Mars.”

So, lend a hand and take a closer look by checking out the full resolution images available on the HiRISE website.

Phoenix Lander Still Visible in New HiRISE Images from Mars

The Phoenix lander still visible at Mars north polar region, nearly 4 Earth years and 2 Mars years after the spacecraft landed on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


I spy Phoenix! said the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter! This new image acquired on January 26, 2012 shows that the Phoenix lander and its backshell are still visible from Mars’ orbit. The parachute, seen in earlier images, is probably about 130 meters south of where this picture ends. This is one of a series of images to monitor frost patterns at the Phoenix landing site, said HiRISE Principal Investigator, Alfred McEwen, adding that this new images shows almost the same appearance of the hardware as 1 Mars years ago, in 2010. See larger versions of this image at the HiRISE website.

See below for comparison images from orbit from 2008, shortly after Phoenix landed and 2010, after the mission had ended.

Two images of the Phoenix Mars lander taken from Martian orbit in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 lander image shows two relatively blue spots on either side corresponding to the spacecraft's clean circular solar panels. In the 2010 image scientists see a dark shadow that could be the lander body and eastern solar panel, but no shadow from the western solar panel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

In these images, also from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels show up in the 2010 image, with one panel appearing to be completely gone. The Phoenix team says this is consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the solar panels.

Source: HiRISE

Incredible 3-D View Inside a Martian Crater

A 3-d view of a well-preserved and unnamed impact crater on Mars, as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaisancee Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. Click for high-resolution version.


This is why I always keep a pair of 3-D glasses by my computer. This well-preserved crater on Mars may look like just your average, run-of-the-mill impact crater in 2-D, but in 3-D, the sharply raised rim, the deep, cavernous crater body, and especially the steep crater walls will have you grabbing your armchairs so you don’t fall in. The image is courtesy of the HiRISE camera team from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This unnamed crater is about 6 or 7 kilometers wide from rim to rim. HiRISE took the image on New Year’s Eve 2011.

HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen says that the camera has imaged hundreds of well-preserved impact craters on Mars ranging from 1 meter to more than 100 kilometers wide. What can the scientists learn from craters?

“These targets are of great interest for multiple reasons,” he said. “First, we want to better understand impact cratering, a fundamental surface process. Second, such craters often contain good exposures of bedrock in the steep walls and, if the crater is large enough, in the central uplift. Just like terrestrial geologists are attracted to good bedrock outcrops like road cuts, planetary geologists are attracted to well-preserved craters.

“Third, the steep slopes often reveal active processes, such as formation of gullies, boulder falls, and slope streaks that could form in a variety of ways. Some of these active processes could be related to water, since the crater may expose lenses of ice or salty water, or create deep shadows that trap volatiles, or expose salts that can extract water from the air.”

Plus, they are just plain wonderful to behold, especially in the resolution the HiRISE can obtain.

A non-3-D version of the same image. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Source: HiRISE

Mars Orbiters Will Attempt to Take Pictures of the Curiosity Rover as It Lands

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Phoenix hanging from its parachute as it descended to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.


Remember this amazing image from 2008? The HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the Phoenix lander descending on a parachute to land on Mars’ north polar region. MRO will attempt a repeat performance in August of 2012 when the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” will be landing in Gale Crater on Mars. Capturing this event would be epic, especially with MSL’s unique “skycrane” landing system.

“Yes, MRO is planning to image the descent of MSL with both HiRISE and CTX (Context Camera),” Alfred McEwen, HiRISE principal investigator told Universe Today. “For Phoenix we got a bit lucky with HiRISE in terms of the geometry, giving us a high probability of success. It may not work out so well for MSL. What I’d really like is to capture the rover hanging from the skycrane, but the timing may be difficult.”

Again, the word here is epic.

So, how challenging is it for a spacecraft orbiting Mars to try and track another spacecraft coming in?

“If we were not to do anything, the Mars’ orbiting spacecraft may be on the other side of the planet,” said MSL navigation team chief Tomas Martin-Mur, during an interview with UT. “So as soon as we launch, we tell the other spacecraft where we are going to be by the time of entry so they can change their orbits over time, so they will be flying overhead as MSL approaches the planet.”

The orbiters – which also includes NASA’s Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express – will have to do special maneuvers to be aligned in just the right place – nearby to MSL’s point of entry into Mars’ atmosphere — and they may even have to change the plane of their orbit.

This artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“The other thing that we’ll need them to do is to point their UHF antennas towards MSL,” Martin-Mur said. “Normally their antennas will be pointed to take pictures, but they will have to go to a special attitude to point to MSL. This will enable them to try — like they did with Phoenix — to take a picture of the spacecraft as it is coming down to the planet. We are hoping to see the parachute deployed and maybe more.”

“That was a great picture for Phoenix, and we will attempt to repeat that,” Martin-Mur added.

While Odyssey and Mars Express’ cameras may not have the resolving power to capture such an image, MRO’s powerful HiRISE camera does. However it has a narrower field of view, so as much skill and planning as this requires, the team will need a little luck, too. But there’s also the CTX.

“CTX has a much larger field of view and will likely capture it,” McEwen said, “but at 20X lower resolution than HiRISE, which should still be good enough to detect the parachute.”

Here’s a preview of what MSL will be going through during the perilous entry descent and landing:

Learn more about the navigation for MSL, currently traveling on its way to Mars, in our previous interview with Tomas Martin-Mur.

Martian Clay A Vessel For Water?

Light-Toned Deposits: This image reveals exposed layers in Noctis Labyrinthus which may contain signatures of iron bearing sulfates and phyllosilcate (clay) minerals. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona


Although it might seem like a fictitious nomenclature, smectite is a real substance and it’s been found on Mars. It’s a clay mineral that, like a sponge, expands and contracts as it takes on liquid water. With magnesium, iron, aluminum and silica in their content, smectites are morphed into being when silicates are exposed to non-acid water. Now Mars has yielded up two such deposits that further indicate the presence of a once wetter world.

“We discovered locations at Noctis Labyrinthus that show many kinds of minerals that formed by water activity,” said Catherine Weitz, lead author and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “The clays we found, called iron/magnesium (Fe/Mg)-smectites, are much younger at Noctis Labyrinthus relative to those found in the ancient rocks on Mars, which indicates a different water environment in these depressions relative to what was happening elsewhere on Mars.”

Thanks to high-resolution images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera and hyperspectral data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, combined with Digital Terrain Models (DTMs), Weitz and her team observed about 300 meters of escarpment restricted to two 30 to 40 kilometer troughs located at the western edge of the Vallis Marineris canyon. By studying the “geological layers” the team was able to map hydrated minerals and better understand how the water chemistry evolved.

“These clays formed from persistent water in neutral to basic conditions around 2 to 3 billion years ago, indicating these two troughs are unique and could have been a more habitable region on Mars at a time when drier conditions dominated the surface,” said co-author and CRISM team member Janice Bishop from the SETI Institute and NASA AMES Research Center.

The huge troughs reveal a rich geological chronicle of events. Like reading a book, each layer is a chapter in Martian water history. As they would fill, they would take on a chemical signature of that era. Then the troughs would erode and nearby volcanism added its own particular brands. Again, they would fill and chemicals would mix. Even the pH levels of the water adds its own fingerprint to the smectite equation. While it isn’t a unique find, what sets this area apart is that things appear to have happened in a reverse order as opposed to what happened globally across Mars. As exciting as these new finds are, for now studies will have to remain photographic.

“These troughs would be fantastic places to send a rover, but unfortunately the rugged terrain makes it unsafe both for landing and for driving,” Weitz said.

Original Story Source: Planetary Science Institute Press Release.