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.