Ancient Volcanoes on Mars Could Have Been the Place for Life

For decades, Mars has been the focal point of intense research. Beginning in the 1960s, literally dozens of robotic spacecraft, orbiters and rovers have explored Mars’ atmosphere and surface, looking for clues to the planet’s past. From this, scientists now know that billions of years ago, Mars was a warmer, wetter place. Not only did liquid water exist on its surface, but it is possible life existed there in some form as well.

Granted, some recent findings have cast some doubt in this, indicating that Mars’ surface may have been hostile to microbes. But a new study from an international team of scientists indicates that evidence life could be found in volcanic deposits. Specifically, they argue that within the massive geological structure known as Valles Marineris, there may be ancient volcanoes that have preserved ancient microbes.

The study, titled “Amazonian Volcanism Inside Valles Marineris on Mars“, recently appeared in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. Led by Petr Brož of the Institute of Geophysics at the Czech Academy of Sciences (AVCR), the team examined Mars’ famous Valles Marineris region – a canyon system stretching for 4000 km (2485.5 mi) – for signs of recent geological activity, which opens up the possibility of there also being fossilized life there.

Valles Marineris, part of NASA World Wind map of Mars. Credit: NASA

The team began by examining the Coprates Chasma canyon, one of the lowest points in Valles Marineris, which is home to over 130 volcanoes and solidified lava flows. This consisted of analyzing high-resolution images of the region that were taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which revealed cones of basaltic lava (aka. scoria) and ash that measured around 400-meters (1300 ft) high.

After examining the cones’ surface patterns and morphological details, they confirmed that these were indeed the remains of lava volcanoes (and not mud volcanoes, which was another possibility). In addition, they also noted similarities between these cone and others on Mars where mud volcanism is not possible – as well as similarities with volcanic cones here on Earth.

As Ernst Hauber, a researcher from the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and a co-author on the study, explained in a AVCR press release:

“The spatial distribution of the cones also suggests their volcanic origin. They appear to occur more frequently along tectonic fractures that formed the trough in the surface and whose fracture interfaces continue into the subsurface, creating pathways for the magma to ascend.”

Even more surprising was the apparent age of the volcanoes, which was very young. On Mars, the main period of volcanic activity ended during Mars’ Hesperian Period – which ran from 3.7 to approximately 3.0 billion years ago. And while images acquired by the Mars Express mission have shown indications of younger volcanoes (occurring 500 million years ago), these tend to be located in volcanic provinces.

A colorized image of the surface of Mars taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The line of three volcanoes is the Tharsis Montes, with Olympus Mons to the northwest. Valles Marineris is to the east. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Arizona State University
A colorized image of the surface of Mars taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The line of three volcanoes is the Tharsis Montes, with Olympus Mons to the northwest. Valles Marineris is to the east. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Arizona State University

A good example of this is the Tharsis Bulge, which is located several thousand km from the Coprates Chasma canyon. It is here that the Tharses Montes mountain chain is located, which consists of the shield volcanoes of Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons. Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the Solar System (with an elevation of 22 km or 13.6 mi), is located at the edge of this region.

In contrast, the volcanic cones spotted in the Coprates Chasma canyon were estimates to be between 200 and 400 million years of age, placing them in the most recent geological period known as the Amazonian (3.0 billion years ago to the present day). This effectively demonstrates that these volcanoes formed late in Mars’ history and far away from volcanic areas like Tharsis and Elysium.

It also demonstrates that these volcanoes were not part of the original formation of Valles Marineris, which is believed to be related to the formation of the Tharsis Bulge. This all took place between the Noachian to Late Hesperian periods of Mars (ca. 3.5 billion years ago), which was the last time Mars experienced widespread geological activity.

Last, but not least, the team used the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM) aboard the MRO to learn more about the mineral compositions of the region’s lava and volcanic cones. Once again, their findings proved to be surprising, and could indicate that the Coprates Chasma region is a suitable location to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

Image of young volcanoes at the base of Coprates Chasma on Mars, obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Essentially, the CRISM data indicated the presence of high-silica content minerals in the volcanic rock, which included opaline-like substances at one of the peaks. Opaline silicates, it should be noted, are water-bearing materials that are often produced by hydrothermal processes – where silicate structures form from supersaturated, hot solutions of minerals that cool to become solid.

On Earth, microorganisms are often found within opal deposits since they form in energy and mineral-rich environments, where microbial lifeforms thrive. The presence of these minerals in the Coprates Chasma region could therefore mean that ancient microorganisms once thrived there. Moreover, such organisms could also be fossilized within the mineral-rich lava rock, making it a tempting target for future research.

As Hauber indicated, the appeal of Coprates Chasma doesn’t end there, and future mission will surely want to make exploring this region a priority:

“Coprates Chasma is not just interesting with regard to the question of previous life on Mars. The region would also be an excellent landing site for future Mars Rovers. Here we could investigate many scientifically important and interesting topics. Analyzing samples for their elemental isotopic fractions would allow us to determine with far greater precision when the volcanoes were actually active.

“On the towering, steep walls, the geologic evolution of the Valles Marineris is presented to us almost like a history book – gypsum strata and layers of old, crustal rocks can be observed, as well as indications for liquid water trickling down the slopes even today during the warm season. That is as much Mars geology as you can get!”

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

In other words, this low-lying region could be central to future studies that attempt to unlock the history and geological evolution of the Red Planet. The payoffs of studying this region not only include determining if Mars had life in the past, but when and how it went from being a warmer, wetter environment to the cold, dessicated landscape we know today.

In the future, NASA, the ESA, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and Roscosmos all hope to mount additional robotic missions to Mars. In addition, NASA and even SpaceX hope to send crewed missions to the planet in the hopes of learning more about its past – and possibly future – habitability. Between its geological history, greater atmospheric pressure, and the possibility of fossilized life, one or more of these missions may be headed to Valles Marineris to have a look around.

Further Reading: The Czech Academy of Science, Earth and Planetary Science Letters

Wow, Mars Sure Can Be Pretty

For a supposedly dead world, Mars sure provides a lot of eye candy. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is our candy store for stunning images of Mars. Recently, HiRise gave us this stunning image (above) of colorful, layered bedrock on the surface of Mars. Notice the dunes in the center. The colors are enhanced, which makes the images more useful scientifically, but it’s still amazing.

HiRise has done it before, of course. It’s keen vision has fed us a steady stream of downright jaw-dropping images of Elon Musk’s favorite planet. Check out this image of Gale Crater taken by HiRise to celebrate its 10 year anniversary orbiting Mars. This image was captured in March 2016.

HiRise captured this image of unusual textures on the floor of the Gale Crater, the same crater where the Curiosity rover is working. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The MRO is approaching its 11 year anniversary around Mars. It has completed over 45,000 orbits and has taken over 216,000 images. The next image is of a fresh impact crater on the Martian surface that struck the planet sometime between July 2010 and May 2012. The impact was in a dusty area, and in this color-enhanced image the fresh crater looks blue because the impact removed the red dust.

This color-enhanced image of a fresh Martian crater was captured by the HiRise camera. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

These landforms on the surface of Mars are still a bit of a mystery. It’s possible that they formed in the presence of an ancient Martian ocean, or perhaps glaciers. Whatever the case, they are mesmerizing to look at.

These odd ridges are still a mystery. Were they formed by glaciers? Oceans? Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Many images of the Martian surface have confounded scientists, and some of them still do. But some, though they look puzzling and difficult to explain, have more prosaic explanations. The image below is a large area of intersecting sand dunes.

What is this? A vast area of Martian rice paddies? Lizard skin? Nope, just an area of intersecting sand dunes. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The surface of Mars is peppered with craters, and HiRise has imaged many of them. This double crater was caused by a meteorite that split in two before hitting the surface.

This double impact crater was caused by a meteorite that split into two before hitting Mars. Notice how the eroding force of the wind has shaped each crater the same, smoothing one edge and creating dunes in the same place. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The image below shows gullies and dunes at the Russell Crater. In this image, the field of dunes is about 30 km long. This image was taken during the southern winter, when the carbon dioxide is frozen. You can see the frozen CO2 as white on the shaded side of the ridges. Scientists think that the gullies are formed when the CO2 melts in the summer.

These gullies are on the dunes of Russell Crater on Mars. This image was taken during winter, and the frozen carbon dioxide on the shaded slopes. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The next image is also the Russell Crater. It’s an area of study for the HiRise team, which means more Russell eye candy for us. This images shows the dunes, CO2 frost, and dust devil tracks that punctuate the area.

This image of the Russell Crater, an area of study for HiRise, shows the area covered in dunes, with some frost visible in the lower left. The larger, darker markings are dust devil tracks. Image: By NASA/JPL/University of Arizona – HiRISE, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12015650

One of the main geological features on Mars is the Valles Marineris, the massive canyon system that dwarfs the Grand Canyon here on Earth. HiRise captured this image of delicate dune features inside Valles Marineris.

These delicate dune features formed inside the Valles Mariners, the massive canyon system on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still going strong. In fact, it continues to act as a communications relay for surface rovers. The HiRise camera is along for the ride, and if the past is any indication, it will continue to provide astounding images of Mars.

And we can’t seem to get enough of them.

Charon Suffered Surprisingly Titanic Upheavals in Fresh Imagery from New Horizons

Charon in Enhanced Color with Grand Canyon
NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon and its Grand Canyon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI[/caption]

Charon suffered such a surprisingly violent past of titanic upheavals that they created a humongous canyon stretching across the entire face of Pluto’s largest moon – as revealed in a fresh batch of images just returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

We have been agog in amazement these past few weeks as New Horizons focused its attention on transmitting astounding high resolution imagery and data of Pluto, captured during mankind’s history making first encounter with our solar systems last unexplored planet on July 14, 2015, at a distance of 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers).

Now after tantalizing hints we see that Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, did
not disappoint and is no less exciting than the “snakeskin texture mountains” of Pluto revealed only last week.

“You’ll love this,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in a blog posting.

Indeed researches say Charon’s tortured landscape of otherworldly canyons, mountains and more far exceeds scientists preconceived notions of a “monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.”

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in a statement.

“But I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see.”

Measuring 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across, Charon is half the diameter of Pluto and forms a double planet system. Charon also ranks as the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. By comparison, Earth’s moon is one quarter the size of our home planet.

The new images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon were taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) during the July 14 flyby and downlinked over about the past week and a half.

They reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator.

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The “Grand Canyon of Charon” stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon visible in the new images. Furthermore the deep canyon probably extends onto the far side of Pluto and hearkens back to Valles Marineris on Mars.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

“With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

Charon’s “Grand Canyon” is four times as long as the Grand Canyon of the United States. Plus its twice as deep in places. “These faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past,” according to the New Horizons team.

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Another intriguing finding is the area south of the canyon is much smoother, with fewer craters and may have been resurfaced by a type of “cryovolcanism.”

The southern plains are informally named “Vulcan Planum” and may be much younger.

“The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago, and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Barely 5 or 6 percent of the 50 gigabits of data captured by New Horizons has been received by ground stations back on Earth due to the slow downlink rate.

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Many astounding discoveries await.

“I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Annotated with informal place names.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

India’s Historic 1st Mission to Mars Celebrates 1 Year in Orbit at Red Planet

MOM celebrates 1 Year at Mars
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO[/caption]

India’s historic first mission to Mars is now celebrating one year orbiting the Red Planet and may continue working for years to come. During year one the spacecraft was highly productive, achieving its goals of taking hordes of breathtaking images and gathering scientific measurements to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy.

The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month interplanetary journey from Earth.

The MOM orbiter was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, which is the equivalent of NASA.

“Mars Orbiter spacecraft marks one year of its life around the Red Planet today [Sept. 24, IST],” said ISRO. It was primarily designed as a technology demonstrator but is also outfitted with significant science instruments.

Shri A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman ISRO (centre) releasing the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mars Atlas with Dr. Y V N Krishnamoorthy, Scientific Secretary ISRO (left); Dr. Annadurai M, Director ISRO Satellite Centre, Shri Tapan Misra, Director Space Application Centre ISRO, Shri Deviprasad Karnik, Director Public Relations Unit ISRO. Credit: ISRO
Shri A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman ISRO (centre) releasing the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mars Atlas with Dr. Y V N Krishnamoorthy, Scientific Secretary ISRO (left); Dr. Annadurai M, Director ISRO Satellite Centre, Shri Tapan Misra, Director Space Application Centre ISRO, Shri Deviprasad Karnik, Director Public Relations Unit ISRO. Credit: ISRO

The probe is equipped with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including the tri color Mars Color Camera imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM) to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

“After successfully completing one year of the mission life around Mars, now a large data set has been acquired by all five payloads of MOM,” ISRO stated.

To mark the one year anniversary ISRO released a new 120 page “Mars Atlas” of imagery and results, which can be downloaded from the ISRO website.

“The images from MCC have provided unique information about Mars at varying spatial resolutions. It has obtained Mars Global data showing clouds, dust in atmosphere and surface albedo variations, when acquired from apoapsis at around 72000 km.”

“On the other hand high resolution images acquired from periapsis show details of various morphological features on the surface of Mars. Some of these images have been showcased in this atlas. The images have been categorized depending upon the Martian surface and atmospheric processes.”

This view over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface was taken by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).  Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is  part of the Valles Marineris canyon system.  Credit: ISRO
This view over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface was taken by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is part of the Valles Marineris canyon system. Credit: ISRO

MOM was built in record time and for a budget of $73 million.

“The MOM spacecraft was designed, built and launched in record period of less than two years,” ISRO explained. “MOM carried five science instruments collecting data on surface geology, morphology, atmospheric processes, surface temperature and atmospheric escape process.”

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

MOM’s Martian arrival was webcast worldwide with an elaborate ceremony that included India’s prime minister who beamed with pride in the team and the nation at that time.

“India has successfully reached Mars!” declared Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who watched the events unfold from mission control at ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore, on Sept. 24, 2014.

“History has been created today. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion.”

MOM swoops around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is about 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) is about 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

Upon MOM’s arrival, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO

The Indian probe arrived just two days after NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, the first mission specifically targeted to study Mars tenuous upper atmosphere and the escape rates of atmospheric constituents.

The $73 million MOM mission was initially expected to last at least six months. In March 2015, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments were operating fine and it had sufficient fuel reserves.

Indeed MOM has enough fuel to continue gather data and images for years to come if the instruments and spacecraft continue to function nominally.

“The Mars Orbiter Mission still has some 45 kg of fuel left which could, in theory, keep the mission going for at least 15 years,” ISRO told The Hindu.

“One cannot get a better bang for the buck! According to ISRO, for normal housekeeping operations and orbit maintenance only about two kg of fuel is necessary per year.”

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO
Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

Indian Mars Orbiter Shoots Spectacular New Images of Sheer Canyon and Curiosity’s Crater

India’s space agency has released a spectacular new batch of images taken by everyone’s favorite MOM – the Mars Orbiter Mission – the nation’s first probe ever dispatched to the Red Planet and which achieved orbit nearly a year ago.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has published a beautiful gallery of images featuring a steep and stunning Martian canyon and the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover, and more.

The lead image was taken over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is part of the Valles Marineris – the ‘Grand Canyon of Mars’ – and the largest known canyon in the Solar System.

The image was captured on July 19, 2015 from an altitude of 1857 kilometers (1154 miles). It has with a resolution of 96 meters.

The steep walled Ophir Chasma canyon contains many layers and the floors contain large deposits of layered materials, perhaps even sulfates.

Ophir Chasma is about 317 kilometers long and about 8 to 10 kilometers deep located near the center of Valles Marineris – see map below.

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet, is as much as 600 km wide and measures as much as 10 kilometers (6 mi) deep. It is nearly as wide as the United States.

Here’s an illuminating and magnificent 3D portrayal of Ophir Chasma created by Indian scientists that gives a sense of the canyons scale, sheer walls and cliffs and depth:

3D portrayals of Ophir Chasma terrain based on images taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission color camera on 19 July 2015 . Credit: ISRO
3D portrayals of Ophir Chasma terrain based on images taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission color camera on 19 July 2015 . Credit: ISRO

The newest images were snapped after the spacecraft exited the communications blackout encountered by all of Earth’s invasion fleet of Red Planet orbiters and rovers during the recent conjunction period when Mars was behind the sun during much of June.

See the prior image release from ISRO in my MOM story – here.

Here’s a wider view of Valles Marineris showing Ophir Chasma in a previously published MOM image from ISRO.

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

ISRO also released a delightful new image of Gale Crater and the surrounding vicinity.

Gale Crater is the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover. MOM took the image from an altitude of 9004 kilometers.

Gale Crater - landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover - and vicinity as seen by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission from an altitude of 9004 km.  Gale crater is home to humongous Mount Sharp which rises 5.5 km from the crater floor and is easily visible in this photo.   Credit: ISRO
Gale Crater – landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover – and vicinity as seen by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission from an altitude of 9004 km. Gale crater is home to humongous Mount Sharp which rises 5.5 km from the crater floor and is easily visible in this photo. Credit: ISRO

Gale Crater is home to humongous Mount Sharp, a mountain that rises 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) from the crater floor and is easily visible in the photo from MOM. The crater is 154 kilometers (96 mi) wide.

Curiosity is currently exploring the foothills of Mount Sharp around the top of the image – which shows a rather different perspective from what we’ve seen from prior familiar orbital imagery snapped by several NASA and ESA orbiters.

The 1 ton rover recently celebrated the 3rd anniversary since its nailbiting touchdown inside Gale crater. And the new wider angle image from MOM gives a fabulous sense of exactly why a highly precise landing was essential – otherwise it would have been doomed.

Curiosity recently drilled into the “Buckskin” target at an outcrop at the foothills of Mount Sharp. See the mountain in our ground level mosaic from the crater floor. And its kind of neat to actually imagine Curiosity sitting there while perusing MOM’s photo.

Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts sample drilling at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right.   Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Inset: MAHLI color camera up close image of full depth drill hole at “Buckskin” rock target on Sol 1060.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts sample drilling at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right. Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Inset: MAHLI color camera up close image of full depth drill hole at “Buckskin” rock target on Sol 1060. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

MOM’s goal is to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It is also sniffing for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month journey from Earth.

The Indian probe arrived just after NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, the first mission specifically targeted to study Mars tenuous upper atmosphere and the escape rates of atmospheric constituents.

MOM swoops around Mars in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to the planet (periapsis) is at about 421 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at about 76,000 km, according to ISRO.

It takes MOM about 3.2 Earth days or 72 hours to orbit the Red Planet.

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

The $73 million MOM mission was expected to last at least six months. In March, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments are operating fine and it has sufficient fuel reserves.

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Location of Ophir Chasma canyon inside this annotated map of Valles Marineris created from the THEMIS camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Credit: NASA
Location of Ophir Chasma canyon inside this annotated map of Valles Marineris created from the THEMIS camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Credit: NASA
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap.   Credit: ISRO
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO

Dazzling Gallery From India’s MOM Mars Orbiter Camera

Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO
Story updated with more details and imagery[/caption]

India’s first ever robotic explorer to the Red Planet, the Mars Orbiter Mission, more affectionately known as MOM, has captured an absolutely dazzling array of images of the fourth rock from the Sun.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, has recently published a beautiful gallery of images featuring a variety of picturesque Martian canyons, volcanoes, craters, moons and more.

We’ve gathered a collection here of MOM’s newest imagery snapped by the probes Mars Color Camera (MCC) for the enjoyment of Martian fans worldwide.

The spectacular 3D view of the Arsia Mons volcano, shown above, was “created by draping the MCC image on topography of the region derived from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), one of five instruments on board NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft.

The Arsia Mons image was taken from Mars orbit on 1 April 2015 at a spatial resolution of 556 meters from an altitude of 10707 km. Volcanic deposits can be seen located at the flanks of the Mons, according to ISRO.

The view of Pital crater below was released in late May and taken on 23 April 2015. Pital is a 40 km wide impact crater located in the Ophir Planum region of Mars and the image shows a chain of small impact craters. It is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region, says an ISRO description. MCC took the image from an altitude of 808 km.

Pital crater is an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars, which is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region. This  image is taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 23-04-2015 at a spatial resolution of  ~42 m from an altitude of 808 km. Credit: ISRO
Pital crater is an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars, which is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region. This image is taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 23-04-2015 at a spatial resolution of ~42 m from an altitude of 808 km. Credit: ISRO

It is an odd shaped crater, neither circular nor elliptical in shape, possibly due to “regional fracture in the W-E trending fracture zone.”

A trio of images, including one in stunning 3D, shows various portions of Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the Solar System.

Three dimensional view of Valles Marineris center portion from India’s MOM Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Three dimensional view of Valles Marineris center portion from India’s MOM Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet , is as much as 600 km wide and measures as much as 7 kilometers (4 mi) deep.

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

For context here’s a previously taken global image of the red planet from MOM showing Valles Marinaris and Arsia Mons, which belongs to the Tharsis Bulge trio of shield volcanoes. They are both near the Martian equator.

Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap.   Credit: ISRO
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO

Valles Marineris is often called the “Grand Canyon of Mars.” It spans about as wide as the entire United States.

A gorgeous view of Phobos, the largest of Mars’ two tiny moons, silhouetted against the surface is shown below.

Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface.  Credit: ISRO
Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface. Credit: ISRO

MOM’s goal is to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It is also sniffing for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month journey from Earth.
MOM swoops around Mars in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to the planet (periapsis) is at about 421 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at about 76,000 km, according to ISRO.

It takes MOM about 3.2 Earth days or 72 hours to orbit the Red Planet.

Higher resolution view of a portion of Valles Marineris canyon from India’s MOM Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Higher resolution view of a portion of Valles Marineris canyon from India’s MOM Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

The $73 million MOM mission was expected to last at least six months. In March, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments are operating fine and it has sufficient fuel reserves.

And with a communications blackout between Mars and Earth imminent as a result of natures solar conjunction, it’s the perfect time to catch up on all things Martian.

Solar conjunctions occur periodically between Mars and Earth about every 26 months, when the two planets line up basically in a straight line geometry with the sun in between as the two planets travel in their sun-centered orbits.

Since Mars will be located behind the Sun for most of June, communications with all the Terran spacecraft at the planet is diminished to nonexistent.

“MOM faces a communication outage during June 8-25,” according to The Hindu.

Normal science operations resume thereafter.

“Fuel on the spacecraft is not an issue,” ISRO Satellite Centre Director M. Annadurai told The Hindu.

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 25-02-2015 at a spatial resolution of 166m from an altitude of 3192km.  Tyrrhenus Mons is an ancient martian volcano and image shows its timeworn gullies and wind streaks.  Credit: ISRO
Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 25-02-2015 at a spatial resolution of 166m from an altitude of 3192km. Tyrrhenus Mons is an ancient martian volcano and image shows its timeworn gullies and wind streaks. Credit: ISRO

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

New Map Shows ‘Marsquakes’ Shook Wet Valles Marineris Sand, NASA Says

Mars today is a planet that appears to be mostly shaped by wind, but that wasn’t always the case. A new map adds information to the hypothesis that “marsquakes” affected at least a part of the planet’s vast canyon, Valles Marineris, while the area contained spring-filled lakes.

When the damp sand got shaken up, it deposited itself in hills. NASA says the new map, based on observations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (which you can see below), adds credence to the theory that it was water that made these deposits.

“The conditions under which sedimentary deposits in it formed have been an open issue for decades,” NASA wrote in a press release. “Possibilities proposed have included accumulation in lakebeds, volcanic eruptions under glaciers within the canyons, and accumulation of wind-blown sand and dust.”

The map you see below was created by the U.S. Geological Survey, which has more extensive information on the findings at this website. The observations also produced a suite of research in recent years, such as this 2009 paper led by Scott Murchie at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Research Laboratory.

Part of a map of Candor Chasma (part of Mars' Valles Marineris) based on observations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Green is knobby terrain, pink is lobate deposits (ridged material) and blue "stair-stepped morphology" of hills and mesas. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Part of a map of Candor Chasma (part of Mars’ Valles Marineris) based on observations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Green is knobby terrain, pink is lobate deposits (ridged material) and blue “stair-stepped morphology” of hills and mesas. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Stunning View of Solar System’s Largest Volcano and Valles Marineris Revealed by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has delivered another sweet treat – a stunning view of our Solar System’s largest volcano and the largest canyon.

Just days ago, MOM captured a new global image of the Red Planet dominated by Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris – which is the largest known volcano and the largest known canyon in the Solar System, respectively.

Situated right in between lies a vast volcanic plateau holding a trio of huge volcanoes comprising the Tharsis Bulge: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons. All four volcanoes are shield volcanoes.

To give an idea of its enormity, Olympus Mons stands about three times taller than Mount Everest and is about the size of Arizona.

Olympus Mons from Mars orbit compared to the state of Arizona. Credit: NASA
Olympus Mons from Mars orbit compared to the state of Arizona. Credit: NASA

Olympus Mons is located in Mars’ western hemisphere and measures 624 kilometers (374 miles) in diameter, 25 km (16 mi) high, and is rimmed by a 6 km (4 mi) high scarp.

Valles Marineris is often called the “Grand Canyon of Mars.” It spans about as wide as the entire United States.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency which designed and developed the orbiter released the image on Oct. 17, barely two days ahead of the planet’s and spacecrafts’ extremely close encounter with comet Siding Spring.

By the way, a relieved ISRO tweeted MOM’s survival of her close shave with the once-in-a-lifetime cometary passage with gusto, soon after the swingby:

“Phew! Experience of a lifetime. Watched the #MarsComet #SidingSpring whizzing past the planet. I’m in my orbit, safe and sound.”

The new global image was taken by the tri-color camera as MOM swooped around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO.

To date ISRO has released four global images of the Red Planet, including a 3-D view, reported here.

Olympus Mons, the Tharsis Bulge, and Valles Marineris are near the equator.

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet, is as much as 600 km wide, and measures as much as 7 kilometers (4 mi) deep.

Here’s a comparison view of the region taken by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter in the 1970s.

Global Mosaic of Mars Centered on Valles Marineris
Global Mosaic of Mars Centered on Valles Marineris from NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter. Credit: NASA

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planet’s influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet only one month ago after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24 following a ten month journey.

The $73 million MOM mission is expected to last at least six months.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

With MOM’s arrival, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities that have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74,500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

Fly Through a Canyon on Mars, Thanks to Mars Express

Take a ride through a Hebes Chasma, a canyon just north of the largest canyon on Mars – and the Solar System — Valles Marineris. The video provides an awesome view, but this is not a wild ride with Luke Skywalker through trenches of the Death Star …. it’s more like a tourist pleasure cruise which provides picturesque views of this 8 km-deep canyon.

ESA provides all the tourist info of what you are seeing:

The movie glides over impact craters pockmarking the plains separating the troughs, down cliff faces scarred by landslides, and along the rough valley floor.

In some parts of the valley Mars Express has detected water-bearing minerals, suggesting that significant quantities of water may have once flowed here.

The formation of Hebes Chasma is likely connected to the nearby volcanic Tharsis region, home to the planet’s vast Olympus Mons volcano.

During periods of intense volcanism the whole region stretched upwards, causing tremendous stress in the crust further way. Unable to withstand the strain, the crust ripped open, collapsing into the chasms found in and around Valles Marineris.

Funny, I was just thinking over the weekend it had been a long time since I’d seen a flythough video from Mars! If you need more, the HiRISE folks have a nice collection of flythrough videos here.

Source: ESA

Valles Marineris: The Grandest Canyon of All

A digital terrain model of a portion of Mars’ Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the Solar System. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Anyone who’s visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona can attest to its beauty, magnificence and sheer sense of awe that comes upon approaching its rim, whether for the first time or hundred-and-first. “Grand” almost seems too inferior a title for such an enormous geological feature — yet there’s a canyon much, much bigger stretching across the surface of Mars, one that could easily swallow all of our Grand Canyon within one of its side gullies.

The image above, released online for the first time today by ESA, is a digital terrain model of a portion of Mars’ Valles Marineris: our Solar System’s grandest canyon.
It’s easy to fall into hyperbole when describing Valles Marineris. Named for NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft, which became the first spacecraft to orbit Mars on November 14, 1971, the canyon is over 4000 km long, 200 km wide, and 10 km deep (2,480 x 125 x 6 miles) — that’s five times deeper than the Grand Canyon and long enough to stretch across the entire contiguous United States! It’s a rift unparalleled on any other world in the Solar System.

Valles Marineris is thought to be the result of the formation of the nearby Tharsis volcanic region, home to Olympus Mons, the Solar System’s largest volcano. As the region swelled with magma billions of years ago the planet’s crust stretched and split, collapsing into a vast, deep canyon.

Much later, landslides and flowing water would help erode the canyon’s steep walls and carve out meandering side channels.

The 45-degree view above was was made from data acquired during 20 individual orbits of ESA’s Mars Express. It is presented in near-true color with four times vertical exaggeration (to increase relief contrast.) Download a high-res JPEG version here.

The largest portion of the canyon seen crossing left to right is known as Melas Chasma. Candor Chasma is the connecting trough to the north, and Hebes Chasma is in the far top left.

Below is a video released by JPL in 2006 showing a virtual fly-through of Valles Marineris, shown as if you were on a Grand Canyon-style helicopter sightseeing tour (that is, if helicopters could even work in the thin Martian air!)

Hopefully someday we’ll be seeing actual videos taken above Valles Marineris and photos captured from its rim… perhaps even by human explorers! (Please exit through the gift shop.)

Image source: ESA. Video by Eric M. De Jong and Phil Christiansen et. al, Arizona State University.