martian terrain


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What created this unusual hole in Mars? Actually, there are numerous holes pictured in this Swiss cheese-like landscape, with all-but-one of them showing a dusty, dark, Martian terrain beneath evaporating, light, carbon-dioxide ice. The most unusual hole is on the upper right, spans about 100-meters, and seems to punch through to a lower level. Why this hole exists and why it is surrounded by a circular crater remains a topic of speculation, although a leading hypothesis is that it was created by a meteor impact. Holes such as this are of particular interest because they might be portals to lower levels that extend into expansive underground caves. If so, these naturally-occurring tunnels are relatively protected from the harsh surface of Mars, making them relatively good candidates to contain Martian life. These pits are therefore prime targets for possible future spacecraft, robots, and even human interplanetary explorers.

Image Credit: NASA, MRO, HiRISE, JPL, U. Arizona


Evidence of Martian life could be hard to find in some meteorite blast sites

Scientists in their preliminary findings suggest signs of life from under Mars’ surface may not survive in rocks excavated by some meteorite impacts.

Scientists analysing samples from Mars’ surface have so far not conclusively detected organic compounds that are indigenous to Mars, which would be indicators of past or present life. The inconclusive results mean that researchers are now suggesting that a good place to find these organic compounds would be deep underground - from rocks that have been blasted to the surface by meteor impacts. This is because such rocks have been sheltered from the Sun’s harmful radiation and from chemical processes on the surface that would degrade organic remains.

Now, a team of scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh has replicated meteorite blasts in the lab. The aim of the study was to see if organic compounds encased in rock could survive the extreme conditions associated with them being blasted to the surface of Mars by meteorites. The study, published today in Scientific Reports, suggests that rocks excavated through meteorite impacts may incorrectly suggest a lifeless early Mars, even if indicators of life were originally present.

In the study the team replicated blast impacts of meteorites of around 10 metres in size. The researchers found that the types of organic compounds found in microbial and algal life - long chain hydrocarbon-dominated matter- were destroyed by the pressures of impact. However, the types of organic compounds found in plant matter - dominated by aromatic hydrocarbons - underwent some chemical changes, but remained relatively resistant to impact pressures. Meteorites often contain organic matter not created by life, which have some similarities in their organic chemistry to land plants. The team infer that they also should also be resistant to blast impacts.

Their study could help future missions to Mars determine the best locations and types of blast excavated rocks to examine to find signs of life. For example, it may be that meteorite impacts of a certain size may not destroy organic compounds or scientists may need to concentrate on rocks excavated from a certain depth.

Professor Mark Sephton, co-author of the research from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “We’ve literally only scratched the surface of Mars in our search for life, but so far the results have been inconclusive. Rocks excavated through meteorite impacts provide scientists with another unique opportunity to explore for signs of life, without having to resort to complicated drilling missions. Our study is showing us is that we may need to be nuanced in our approach to the rocks we choose to analyse.”
Dr Wren Montgomery, co-author of the study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, added: “The study is helping us to see that when organic matter is observed on Mars, no matter where, it must be considered whether the sample could have been affected by the pressures associated with blast impacts. We still need to do more work to understand what factors may play an important role in protecting organic compounds from these blast impacts. However, we think some of the factors may include the depths at which the rock records are buried and the angles at which meteorites hit the Martian surface.”

Previous in situ analyses of the Martian terrain have found inconclusive evidence for the existence organic compounds - so far only finding chlorinated organic matter. The issue for scientists has been that it is not easy to look at simple chlorine-containing organic molecules and determine the origin of the organic compound components.

NASA’s Viking landers in 1976 detected chlorine-containing organic compounds, but they were thought to be chemical left-overs from cleaning procedures of Viking’s equipment before it left Earth. Later, the Phoenix Mission in 2008 discovered chlorine-containing minerals on the Martian surface, but no organic compounds. In 2012 the Mars Science Laboratory Mission detected chlorinated organic matter, but they thought that the analysis process, which involved heating chlorine containing minerals and carbonaceous material together, was producing chlorine-containing organic compounds. Working out whether the source of the carbon found on Mars was carried once again from Earth or was indigenous to Mars remains frustratingly difficult for scientists.

The team carried out their research by subjecting the different types of organic matter to extreme pressure and temperature in a piston cylinder device. They then did a chemical analysis using pyrolysis-gas chromatography mass spectrometry.

The next steps will see the team investigating a broader range of pressures and temperatures, which would help them understand the likely effects of a greater range of meteorite impacts. This would enable them to identify the specific conditions under which organic material may escape the destructive effects of blasts - even when excavated from deep underground by violent events. This could help future Mars missions further refine the types and locations of rocks that they can analyse for signs of past or present life.


Martian Gullies Were Carved By Water, Not Lava, And Now We Have Proof

“Are these streams tricking into a large river? Or is this a lava ridge – similar to the mid-Atlantic ridge on Earth – where lava has trickled down the sides?

From this visual inspection, it’s impossible to tell. But we have a trick up our sleeves thanks to orbital surveyors: we can measure the topography of these features, or the relative elevation of each point in this image. A lava flow would have the highest point (in altitude) be located at the peak of the flow, and everything else would have to be “downhill” from there, culminating in the “tendrils” at the lowest elevations. But if this were caused by water, the ends of the tendrils would be at the highest points, flowing down into the river basin below.”

For a long time, scientists debated what formed these features that appeared to be carved into the martian terrain. Were they caused by lava, flowing down over the rest of the martian surface? Or were they caused by water, flowing down the mountains and culminating in a river? Thanks to our orbiting satellites constructing a complete topographic map of the surface, we know the answer: it’s water all the way!

Dr. Mayer was half asleep at her console when Dr. Stone tapped her on the shoulder.

“Hey,” said Dr. Stone, “can we get a look at that rock?”

Dr. Mayer checked the records. The Curiosity rover had been exploring a new part of the Martian terrain lately. Her job was to do daily checkups on the robotics, keep it running, and, when necessary, give it new orders. Dr. Stone was the top NASA geologist following the mission. He got very touchy if you made any jokes about his name.

“Huh,” said Mayer.

“Huh indeed,” said Stone.

One of the latest batch of photos clearly showed a fuzzy object. It was so covered in the red Martian dust that it was hard to tell what color it might have otherwise been, but if you really squinted there was a hint of gray.

“What is that?” asked Mayer. “Can’t be a rock. Rocks aren’t furry.”

“Certain minerals can have long, thin projections,” Stone answered. “Furry looking. But none of them should be able to form in Martian conditions. Can you tell the rover to investigate? Take a sample?“

"Yeah,” said Mayer. “You know it will take ten minutes to get the signal over, and another ten to get the results back.”

“Nothing else going on here,” said Stone. “Tell Curiosity to record its progress. We can get a video stream of the results.”

Mayer typed into her console, carefully crafted the commands, then pressed the SEND button. She nodded at Stone, then went back to her maintenance work.

Twenty or so minutes later, the main screen in the control room came to life.

“Ah,” said Stone. “It must have reached the area of interest by now.”

The rover rolled up to the strange furry object, reached out its robotic arm, and activated the drill. “TAKING CORE SAMPLE,” read the status line on Mayer’s computer.

Then several things happened at once.

Red liquid started shooting everywhere.

The camera became suddenly jerky, as if something was struggling against the drill, knocking the rover’s arm this way and that.

Through the chaos, there were glimpses of movement, grey and furry.

“STOP THE DRILL!” Stone shouted.

“I can’t!” Mayer objected, “it’ll take another ten minutes to send a message to the rover!”

Then the drill stopped of its own accord, the sampling procedure completed.

The camera zoomed in for a final look.

There, lying on the Martian surface, was a mangled but unmistakably feline-shaped corpse.

“My god,” said Dr. Stone. “Curiosity killed the cat!”

Martian dune buggy Curiosity adopts new driving mode to save wheels from rough rocks

The team directing the epic trek of NASA’s Curiosity rover across the floor of Gale Crater has adopted new driving strategies and a new way forward in response to the unexpected wheel damage caused by driving over fields of rough edged Red Planet rocks in recent months.

This week, engineers directed dune buggy Curiosity to drive backwards for a lengthy distance over the Martian surface for the first time since landing.

The SUV sized vehicle apparently passed the reverse driving feasibility test with flying colors and is now well on the way to the exciting journey ahead aiming for the sedimentary layers at the base of towering Mount Sharp – the primary mission destination – which reaches 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky and possesses water altered minerals.

“We wanted to have backwards driving in our validated toolkit because there will be parts of our route that will be more challenging,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, in a statement.

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, Curiosity not only drove in reverse, but the 329 feet (100.3 meters) distance covered marked her farthest one-day advance in over three months.

And she is also now roving over the much sought after smoother Martian terrain, as hoped, when the team decided to alter the traverse route based on high resolution imaging observations collected by the telescopic camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) circling overhead.

The goal is to minimize wear and tear on the 20 inch diameter wheels.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/ Ken Kremer- Di Lorenzo


On this day in 1971, the Mars 3 lander became the first spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on Mars.

The Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander became the first spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on the surface of the Red Planet on December 2, 1971. This came after its twin, Mars 2, crash landed just days earlier. While the spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of the planet, it stopped transmitting data after 14.5 seconds and was unable to complete its mission. During that time, the lander returned the first partial image captured from the surface of Mars, although nothing is identifiable in the photograph.

The lander also carried a rover with it, but due to the failure of communications it was unable to deploy the rover onto the surface of Mars. The rover would’ve traversed the Martian terrain using skis while attached to the lander via a 15 meter umbilical cord. If deployed, it would’ve been the first rover to roam the surface of the Red Planet.