This Bizarre Terrain on Mars is Caused by Water Ice and Carbon Dioxide

Spring fans and polygons on Mars, as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona.

From orbit, this landscape on Mars looks like a lacy honeycomb or a spider web. But the unusual polygon-shaped features aren’t created by Martian bees or spiders; they are actually formed from a ongoing process of seasonal change from created from water ice and carbon dioxide.

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These are Star Dunes on Mars, Formed When the Wind Comes From Many Different Directions

An amazing aspect of Mars that is captured in many HiRISE images is geologic diversity within a small area. This image, of a crater in the Tyrrhena Terra region, was targeted to look at the geologic aspects of possible clays detected with the CRISM instrument. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona

Missions to Mars are expensive, even orbiters. They’re there to do science, not take pretty pictures. But sometimes Mars’ beauty is captured inadvertently, usually with some science mixed in.

That’s the case with this picture of star dunes captured by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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Ice Peeks out of a Cliffside on Mars

This area, on the western edge of Milankovic Crater on Mars, has a thick deposit of sediment that covers a layer rich in ice. The ice is not obvious unless you look in color. In the red-green-blue images that are close to what the human eye would see, the ice looks bright white, while the surroundings are a rusty red. The ice stands out even more clearly in the infrared-red-blue images where it has a striking bluish-purple tone while the surroundings have a yellowish-grey color. The ice-rich material is most visible when the cliff is oriented east-west and is shielded from the sun as it arcs through the sky to the south. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona

The HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured another beauty. This time the image shows water ice peeking out from a cliffside on Mars. A layer of sediment obscures most of the ice, but fingers of it are visible.

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One Feature Mars has That we Don’t: Polar Megadunes

For fans of astrophotography, Kevin M. Gill needs no introduction. Even if you’re not up on the latest astronomical news and developments, chances are you’ve still seen some of his images over the years. From beautiful artist renditions to breathtaking photographs of far-off planets, Gill has covered it all. Among the latest images available on his official Flickr page are pictures of a unique feature on Mars: the Chasma Boreale Megadunes!

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Dusty Snow on Mars Could be Melting Just Below the Surface

Dust on Mars gets everywhere – including on top of ice deposited during one of Mars’ previous ice ages.  Just how that dust affects the ice is still up for some debate. Adding to that debate, a recent paper by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Washington has laid out a map between the dust content of a glacier and the brightness of its ice.

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Dust Storms on Mars Continue to Make the Planet Drier

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA

Despite decades of exploration and study, Mars still has its fair share of mysteries. In particular, scientists are still trying to ascertain what happened to the water that once flowed on Mars’ surface. Unfortunately, billions of years ago, the Martian atmosphere began to be stripped away by the solar wind, which also resulted in the loss of its surface water over time – although it was not entirely clear where it went and what mechanisms were involved.

To address this, a team of scientists recently consulted data obtained by three orbiter missions studying the Martian atmosphere. In the process, they found evidence that the smaller regional dust storms that happen almost annually on Mars are making the planet drier over time. These findings suggest that storms are a major driving force behind the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere and its transition to the freezing and desiccated place we know today.

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How Old is the Ice at Mars’ North Pole?

Ice at the north pole of Mars is seen from orbit in this image captured by Mars Express in May 2014. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/J. Cowart

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.

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What’s Causing Those Landslides on Mars? Maybe Underground Salt and Melting Ice

Changes in Mar’s geography always attract significant scientific and even public attention.  A hope for signs of liquid water (and therefore life) is likely one of the primary driving forces behind this interest.  One particularly striking changing feature is the Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) originally found by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Now, scientists at the SETI Institute have a modified theory for where those RSLs might develop – a combination of water ice and salt just under the Martian surface.

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Mars is Still an Active World. Here’s a Landslide in Nili Fossae

Credit: UofA/LPL

Since the 1960s and 70s, scientists have come to view Mars as something of a “dead planet.” As the first close-up images from orbit and the surface came in, previous speculation about canals, water, and a Martian civilization were dispelled. Subsequent studies also revealed that the geological activity that created features like the Tharsis Mons region (especially Olympus Mons) and Valles Marineris had ceased long ago.

However, in the past few decades, robotic missions have found ample evidence that Mars is still an active place. A recent indication was an image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which showed relatively fresh landslides in a crater near Nili Fossae. This area is part of the Syrtis Major region and is located just north of the Jezero Crater (where the Perseverance rover will be landing in six weeks!)

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Another Incredible Picture of Mars, This Time From a Region Just Outside Valles Marineris

HiRISE image showing the terrain in Juventae Chasma. Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona

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.

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