On Earth, the study of ice core samples is one of many methods scientists use to reconstruct the history of our past climate change. The same is true of Mars’ northern polar ice cap, which is made up of many layers of frozen water that have accumulated over eons. The study of these layers could provide scientists with a better understanding of how the Martian climate changed over time.
This remains a challenge since the only way we are able to study the Martian polar ice caps right now is from orbit. Luckily, a team of researchers from UC Boulder was able to use data obtained by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to chart how the northern polar ice caps’ evolved over the past few million years.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) delivers once again! Using its advanced imaging instrument, the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera, the orbiter captured a breathtaking image (shown below) of the plains north of Juventae Chasma. This region constitutes the southwestern part of Valles Marineris, the gigantic canyon system that runs along the Martian equator.
On October 19th, 2016, the NASA/ESA ExoMars mission arrived at the Red Planet to begin its study of the surface and atmosphere. While the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully established orbit around Mars, the Schiaparelli Lander crashed on its way to the surface. At the time, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) acquired images of the crash site using its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.
In March and December of 2019, the HiRISE camera captured images of this region once again to see what the crash site looked like roughly three years later. The two images show the impact crater that resulted from the crash, which was partially-obscured by dust clouds created by the recent planet-wide dust storm. This storm lasted throughout the summer of 2019 and coincided with Spring in Mars’ northern hemisphere.
Mars is well-known for being a dry and arid place, where dusty red sand dunes are prevalent and water exists almost entirely in the form of ice and permafrost. An upside to this, however, is the fact that these conditions are the reason why Mars’ many surface features are so well preserved. And as missions like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have shown, this allows for some pretty interesting finds.
Consider the picture recently taken by Curiosity’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instrument while orbiting above the Copernicus Crater on Mars. This image showed raindrop-like features that are actually signs of sand dunes that are rich in olivine. These same types of dunes exist on Earth but are very rare since this mineral weathers quickly and turns to clay in wet environments.
It’s easy to take for granted the detailed, almost real-time knowledge of Mars that we have at our fingertips. After all, in the not-too-distant past, Mars was largely mysterious. All we had were ground-based images of the planet. Now? Now we have daily weather reports and images of dust storms.
Its an established fact that Mars was once a warmer and wetter place, with liquid water covering much of its surface. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, the planet lost its atmosphere, which caused most of its surface water to disappear. Today, much of that water remains hidden beneath the surface in the form of water ice, which is largely restricted to the polar regions.
In recent years, scientists have also learned of ice deposits that exist in the equatorial regions of Mars, though it was unlcear how deep they ran. But according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey, erosion on the surface of Mars has revealed abundant deposits of water ice. In addition to representing a major research opportunity, these deposits could serve as a source of water for Martian settlements, should they ever be built.
For the sake of their study, the team consulted data obtained by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This data revealed eight locations in the mid-latitude region of Mars where steep slopes created by erosion exposed substantial quantities of sub-surface ice. These deposits could extend as deep as 100 meters (328 feet) or more.
The fractures and steep angles indicate that the ice is cohesive and strong. As Dundas explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars. What we’ve seen here are cross-sections through the ice that give us a 3-D view with more detail than ever before.”
These ice deposits, which are exposed in cross-section as relatively pure water ice, were likely deposited as snow long ago. They have since become capped by a layer of ice-cemented rock and dust that is between one to two meters (3.28 to 6.56 ft) thick. The eight sites they observed were found in both the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at latitudes from about 55° to 58°, which accounts for the majority of the surface.
It would be no exaggeration to say that this is a huge find, and presents major opportunities for scientific research on Mars. In addition to affecting modern geomorphology, this ice is also a preserved record of Mars’ climate history. Much like how the Curiosity rover is currently delving into Mars’ past by examining sedimentary deposits in the Gale Crater, future missions could drill into this ice to obtain other geological records for comparison.
These ice deposits were previously detected by the Mars Odyssey orbiter (using spectrometers) and ground-penetrated radar aboard the MRO and the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. NASA also sent the Phoenix lander to Mars in 2008 to confirm the findings made by the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which resulted in it finding and analyzing buried water ice located at 68° north latitude.
However, the eight scarps that were detected in the MRO data directly exposed this subsurface ice for the first time. As Shane Byrne, the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and a co-author on the study, indicated:
“The discovery reported today gives us surprising windows where we can see right into these thick underground sheets of ice. It’s like having one of those ant farms where you can see through the glass on the side to learn about what’s usually hidden beneath the ground.”
These studies would also help resolve a mystery about how Mars’ climate changes over time. Today, Earth and Mars have similarly-tiled axes, with Mars’ axis tilted at 25.19° compared to Earth’s 23.439°. However, this has changed considerably over the course of eons, and scientists have wondered how increases and decreases could result in seasonal changes.
Basically, during periods where Mars’ tilt was greater, climate conditions may have favored a buildup of ice in the middle-latitudes. Based on banding and color variations, Dundas and his colleagues have suggested that layers in the eight observed regions were deposited in different proportions and with varying amounts of dust based on varying climate conditions.
As Leslie Tamppari, the MRO Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:
“If you had a mission at one of these sites, sampling the layers going down the scarp, you could get a detailed climate history of Mars. It’s part of the whole story of what happens to water on Mars over time: Where does it go? When does ice accumulate? When does it recede?”
The presence of water ice in multiple locations throughout the mid-latitudes on Mars is also tremendous news for those who want to see permanent bases constructed on Mars someday. With abundant water ice just a few meters below the surface, and which is periodically exposed by erosion, it would be easily accessible. It would also mean bases need not be built in polar areas in order to have access to a source of water.
This research was made possible thanks to the coordinated use of multiple instruments on multiple Mars orbiters. It also benefited from the fact that these missions have been studying Mars for extended periods of time. The MRO has been observing Mars for 11 years now, while the Mars Odyssey probe has been doing so for 16. What they have managed to reveal in that time has provided all kinds of opportunities for future missions to the surface.
As of 2016, Mars became the permanent residence of no less than eight robotic missions, a combination of orbiters, rovers and landers. Between extensive studies of the Martian atmosphere and surface, scientists have learned a great deal about the planet’s history and evolution. In particular, they have uncovered voluminous amounts of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface.
The most recent evidence to this effect from the University of Texas at Austin, where researchers have produced a study detailing how water deposited sediment in Mars’ Aeolis Dorsa region. According to their research, this area contains extensive sedimentary deposits that act as a historical record of Mars, cataloguing the influence played by water-based erosion over time.
For years, Aeolis Dorsa has been of interest to scientists since it contains some of the most densely-packed sedimentary layers on Mars, which were deposited by flowing water (aka. fluvial deposits). These deposits are visible from orbit because of the way they have undergone a process known as “topographic inversion” – which consists of deposits filling low river channels, then being exhumed to create incised valleys.
By definition, incised valleys are topographic lows produced by “riverine” erosion – i.e. relating to a river or riverbank. On Earth, these valleys are commonly created by rising sea levels, and then filled with sediment as a result of falling sea levels. As sea levels rise, the valleys are cut from the landscape as the waters move inland; and as the sea levels drop, retreating waters deposit sediment within them.
According to the study, this process has created an opportunity for geophysicists and planetary scientist to observe Mars’ geological record in three dimensions and across significant distances. As Cardenas told Universe Today via email:
“Sedimentary rocks in general record information about the environments under which they were deposited. Fluvial (river) deposits specifically record information about the way rivers migrated laterally, the way they aggraded vertically, and how these things changed over time.”
Here on Earth, the statigraphy (i.e. the order and position of sedimentary layers) of sedimentary rocks has been used by geologists for generations to place constraints on what conditions were like on our planet billions of years ago. It has only been in recent history that the study of sedimentary layers has been used to place constraints on what environmental conditions were like on other planetary bodies (like Mars) billions of years ago.
However, most of these studies have produced data that has been unable to resolve sedimentary packaging at the sub-meter scale. Instead, satellite images have been used to define large-scale stratigraphic relationships, such as deposition patterns along past water channels. In other words, the studies have focused on cataloging the existence of past water flows on Mars more than what has happened since then.
As Cardenas indicated, he and his team took a different approach, one which considered that Mars has experienced changes over the past 3.5 billion years. As he explained:
“In general, there has been the assumption that a lot of the martian surface is not particularly different than it was 3.5 billion years ago. We make an effort to demonstrate that the modern surface at our study area, Aeolis Dorsa, is the result of burial, exhumation, and un-equal erosion, and it can’t be assumed that the modern surface represents the ancient surface at all. We really try to show that what we see today, the features we can measure today, are sedimentary deposits of rivers, and not actual rivers. This is incredibly important to realize when you start making interpretations of your observations, and it is frequently a missed point.”
These processed the paired images into high-resolution topographic data and digital elevation models (DEMs) which were then compared to data from the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MSG). The final result was a series of DEMs that were orders of magnitude higher in terms of resolution than anything previously produced.
For all of this, Cardenas and his colleagues were able to identify stacking patterns in the fluvial deposits, noted changes in sedimentation styles, and suggested mechanisms for their creation. In addition, the team introduced a brand new method to measure the flow direction of the rivers that left these deposits, which allowed them to see how the landscape has changed over the past few billion years.
“The study shows there was a large body of water on Mars ~3.5 billion years ago, and that this body of water increased and decreased in volume slowly enough that river sedimentation had time to adjust styles,” said Cardenas. “This is more in line with slower climatic changes, and less in line with catastrophic hydrologic events. Aeolis Dorsa is positioned along hypothesized coastlines of an ancient northern ocean on Mars. It’s interesting to find coastal river deposits at Aeolis Dorsa, but it doesn’t help us constrain the size of the water body (lake, ocean, etc.)”
In essence, Cardenas and his colleagues concluded that – similar to Earth – falling and rising water levels in a large water body forced the formation of the paleo-valleys in their study area. And in a way that is similar to what is happening on Earth today, rivers that formed in coastal regions were strongly influenced by changes in water levels of a large, downstream water body.
For some time, it has been something of a foregone conclusion that the surface of Mars is dead, its features frozen in time. But as this study demonstrated, the landscape has undergone significant changes since it lost its atmosphere and surface water. These findings will no doubt be the subject of interest as we get closer to mounting a crewed mission to the Martian surface.
What’s the most powerful telescope for observing Mars? A telephoto lens on the HiRise camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can resolve features as small as 3 feet (1-meter) across. NASA used that camera to provide new details of the scene near the Martian equator where Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander crashed to the surface last week.
During an October 25 imaging run HiRise photographed three locations where hardware from the lander hit the ground all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) of each other. The dark crater in the photo above is what you’d expect if a 660-pound object (lander) slammed into dry soil at more than 180 miles an hour (300 km/h). The crater’s about a foot and a half (half a meter) deep and haloed by dark rays of fresh Martian soil excavated by the impact.
But what about that long dark arc northeast of the crater? Could it have been created by a piece of hardware jettisoned when Schiaparelli’s propellant tank exploded? The rays are curious too. The European Space Agency says that the lander fell almost vertically when the thrusters cut out, yet the asymmetrical nature of the streaks — much longer to the west than east — would seem to indicate an oblique impact. It’s possible, according to the agency, that the hydrazine propellant tanks in the module exploded preferentially in one direction upon impact, throwing debris from the planet’s surface in the direction of the blast, but more analysis is needed. Additional white pixels in the image could be lander pieces or just noise.
In the wider shot, several other pieces of lander-related flotsam are visible. About 0.8 mile (1.4 km) eastward, you can see the tiny crater dug out when the heat shield smacked the ground. Several bright spots might be pieces of its shiny insulation. About 0.6 mile (0.9 kilometer) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are thought to be the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell. NASA plans additional images to be taken from different angle to help better interpret what we see.
The test lander is part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2016 mission, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on Oct. 19. The orbiter will investigate the atmosphere and surface of Mars in search of organic molecules and provide relay communications capability for landers and rovers on Mars. Science studies won’t begin until the spacecraft trims its orbit to a 248-mile-high circle through aerobraking, which is expected to take about 13 months.
Everything started out well with Schiaparelli, which successfully transmitted data back to Earth during its descent through the atmosphere, the reason we know that the heat shield separated and the parachute deployed as planned. Unfortunately, the chute and its protective back shell ejected ahead of time followed by a premature firing of the thrusters. And instead of burning for the planned 30 seconds, the rockets shut off after only 3. Why? Scientists believe a software error told the lander it was much closer to the ground than it really was, tripping the final landing sequence too early.
Landing on Mars has never been easy. We’ve done flybys, attempted to orbit the planet or land on its surface 44 times. 15 of those have been landing attempts, with 7 successes: Vikings 1 and 2, Mars Pathfinder, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Phoenix Lander and Curiosity rover. We’ll be generous and call it 8 if you count the 1971 landing of Mars 3 by the then-Soviet Union. It reached the surface safely but shut down after just 20 seconds.
Mars can be harsh, but it forces us to get smart.
**** Want to learn more about Mars and how to track it across the sky? My new book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, which will be published on Nov. 8, covers planets, satellites, the aurora and much more. You can pre-order it right now at these online stores. Just click an icon to go to the site of your choice – Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount.
Modern astronomy and space exploration has blessed us with a plethora of wonderful images. Whether they were images of distant planets, stars and galaxies taken by Earth-based telescopes, or close-ups of planets or moons in our own Solar System by spacecraft, there has been no shortage of inspiring pictures. But what would it look like to behold planet Earth from another celestial body?
We all remember the breathtaking photos taken by the Apollo astronauts that showed what Earth looked like from the Moon. But what about our next exploration destination, Mars? With all the robotic missions on or in orbit around the Red Planet, you’d think that there would have been a few occasions where they got a good look back at Earth. Well, as it turn out, they did!
Pictures from Space:
Pictures of Earth have been taken by both orbital missions and surface missions to Mars. The earliest orbiters, which were part of the Soviet Mars and NASA Mariner programs, began arriving in orbit around Mars by 1971. NASA’s Mariner 9 probe was the first to establish orbit around the planet’s (on Nov. 14, 1971), and was also the first spacecraft to orbit another planet.
The first orbiter to capture a picture of Earth from Mars, however, was the Mars Global Surveyor, which launched in Nov. 7th, 1996, and arrived in orbit around the planet on Sept. 12th, 1997. In the picture (shown above), which was taken in 2003, we see Earth and the Moon appearing closely together.
At the time the picture was taken, the distance between Mars and Earth was 139.19 million km (86.49 million mi; 0.9304 AU) while the distance between Mars and the Moon was 139.58 million km (86.73 million mi; 0.9330 AU). Interestingly enough, this is what an observer would see from the surface of Mars using a telescope, whereas a naked-eye observer would simply see a single point of light.
Usually, the Earth and Moon are visible as two separate points of light, but at this point in the Moon’s orbit they were too close to resolve with the naked eye from Mars. If you look closely at Earth, you can just make out the shape of South America.
The picture above was snapped by the Mars Express’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on the ESA’s Mars Express probe. It was also taken in 2003, and is similar in that it shows the Earth and Moon together. However, in this image, we see the two bodies at different points in their orbit – which is why the Moon looks like its farther away. Interestingly enough, this image was actually part of the first data sets to be sent by the spacecraft.
The next orbiter to capture an image of Earth from Mars was the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which was launched in August of 2005 and attained Martian orbit on March 10th, 2006. When the probe reached Mars, it joined five other active spacecraft that were either in orbit or on the surface, which set a record for the most operational spacecraft in the vicinity of Mars at the same time.
In the course of its mission – which was to study Mars’ surface and weather conditions, as well as scout potential landing sites – the orbiter took many interesting pictures. The one below was taken on Oct. 3rd, 2007, which showed the Earth and the Moon in the same frame.
Pictures from the Surface:
As noted already, pictures of Earth have also been taken by robotic missions to the surface of Mars. This has been the case for as long as space agencies have been sending rovers or landers that came equipped with mobile cameras. The earliest rovers to reach the surface – Mars 2 and Mars 3– were both sent by the Soviets.
However, it was not until early March of 2004, while taking photographs of the Martian sky, that the Spirit rover became the first to snap a picture of Earth from the surface of another planet. This image was caught while the rover was attempting to observe Mars’ moon Deimos making a transit of the Sun (i.e. a partial eclipse).
This is something which happens quite often given the moon’s orbital period of about 30 hours. However, on this occasion, the rover managed to also capture a picture of distant Earth, which appeared as little more than a particularly bright star in the night sky.
The next rover to snap an image of Earth from the Martian surface was Curiosity, which began sending back many breathtaking photos even before it landed on Aug. 6th, 2012. And on Jan. 31st, 2014 – almost a year and a half into its mission – the rover managed to capture an image of both Earth and the Moon in the night sky.
In the image (seen below), Earth and the Moon are just visible as tiny dots to the naked eye – hence the inset that shows them blown up for greater clarity. The distance between Earth and Mars when Curiosity took the photo was about 160 million km (99 million mi).
Earth has been photographed from Mars several times now over the course of the past few decades. Each picture has been a reminder of just how far we’ve come as a species. It also provides us with a preview of what future generations may see when looking out their cabin window, or up at the night sky from other planets.
We like to focus on successful space missions and celebrate what those successes add to our knowledge. But, obviously, not all missions are completely successful. And since some missions are at such huge distances from Earth, their fate can remain a mystery.
This was true of the Beagle 2 Lander, until recently.
The Beagle 2 was a UK contribution to the ESA’s Mars Express mission, launched in 2003. Mars Express consisted of two components; the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 Lander. The mission arrived at Mars in December 2003, when the Beagle 2 separated from the orbiter and landed on the Martian surface.
Beagle 2’s destination was Isidis Planitia, a vast sedimentary basin. Beagle 2 was supposed to operate for 180 days, with a possible extension up to one Martian year. But the ESA was unable to contact the lander after several attempts, and in February 2004, the ESA declared the mission lost.
The Beagle 2, named after the ship that Darwin took on his famous voyage, had some solid science goals in mind. It was going to study the geology, mineralogy, and the geochemistry of the landing site, and also the physical properties of the atmosphere and Mars’ surface. It was also going to study the Martian meteorology and climate, and search for biosignatures. But all that was lost.
There was lots of conjecture, but the Beagle 2’s fate was a mystery.
Now, thanks to a new method of ‘stacking and matching’ photos of the Martian surface, which results in higher resolution images than previously possible, the likely fate of the Beagle 2 is known. It appears that the spacecraft landed softly as planned, but that solar panels failed to deploy properly. This not only starved the lander of electrical power, but blocked the craft’s antenna from functioning. This is why no signal was ever received from Beagle 2.
It took quite a bit of sleuthing to find the Beagle 2. The MRO has used its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) camera to search for other craft on the surface of Mars, but the Beagle 2 was harder to find. It never sent even a brief signal after touchdown, which would have made it much easier to locate.
Adding to the difficulty is the huge landing area the Beagle 2 had. Beagle 2’s landing site at the time of its launch was an ellipse 170 km by 100 km in the Isidis Planitia. That’s an enormous area in which to locate a spacecraft that’s less than a few meters across once deployed, with a camera that has an image scale of about 0.2m, (10 inches).
The MRO has been using its HiRise to look for Beagle 2 since it was lost. As it went about the business of its science objectives, it captured occasional images of the Beagle 2’s landing site. Eventually, the lander was identified by Michael Croon, a former member of the ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter team. In HiRise images from February 2013 and June 2014, Croon found visual evidence of the lander and its entry and descent components.
The puzzling thing was that the image seemed to shift around in different photos. This could be because the lander deployed its solar panels like flower petals arranged around the center. The panels will reflect light differently in different lighting conditions, which could make the lander appear to change location in subsequent photos. If Beagle 2 is sitting on an uneven surface, that could add to the illusion.
The HiRise images are consistent with the idea that the panels failed to deploy, and that also makes sense if the panels blocked the antenna from operating. It’s also possible that the sun glinting off the panels only makes it appear that not all of them opened.
But what’s bad news for Beagle 2 is good news for the human endeavour to study Mars. The new technique of combining images of the surface of Mars yields photos with 5 times the resolution that MRO can provide. This will make selecting landing sites for future missions much easier, and will also contribute to the science objectives of the MRO itself.
The Mars Express Orbiter is still in operation above Mars, and has been for over 12 years. Among its achievements are the detection of water ice in Mars’ South Polar cap and the discovery of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. The orbiter also performed the closest-ever flyby of Mars’ moon Phobos.