Cool shit at work: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

This series of false-color pictures of sand dunes in the north polar region of Mars. The area covered in each of the five panels is about 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) wide. The progression begins at left (Panel A) in early spring, when the ground is covered by a seasonal layer of carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) about 2 feet thick. As spring progresses the ice cracks (Panel B), releasing dark sand from the dune below. When pressurized gas trapped below the ice layer is released, it carries along sand and dust to the top of the ice layer, where it is dropped in fan-shaped deposits downhill and downwind (panels C and D). The final panel shows more and more of the dark dunes as the overlying layer of seasonal ice evaporates back into the atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This series of false-color pictures of sand dunes in the north polar region of Mars. The area covered in each of the five panels is about 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) wide. The progression begins at left (Panel A) in early spring, when the ground is covered by a seasonal layer of carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) about 2 feet thick. As spring progresses the ice cracks (Panel B), releasing dark sand from the dune below. When pressurized gas trapped below the ice layer is released, it carries along sand and dust to the top of the ice layer, where it is dropped in fan-shaped deposits downhill and downwind (panels C and D). The final panel shows more and more of the dark dunes as the overlying layer of seasonal ice evaporates back into the atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

There is a fascinating thing NASA uses called a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which launched in 2005. It’s primary mission is to search for evidence on water on the planet. Per NASA’s mission overview, “While other Mars missions have shown that water flowed across the surface in Mars’ history, it remains a mystery whether water was ever around long enough to provide a habitat for life. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will study the history of water on Mars.”

The MRO is also surveying small scale features, many in 3D. It’s tracked sand dunes, weather progressions, craters and, as of yesterday, flood channels that had been buried by lava flows. Check it out below: it’s a little heady, but still cool.

Why is it important to know about and take photos of flood channels on mars? Well for one thing, if Mars supports, or has supported water, then it could support, or have supported, life.

From NASA’s press release on the findings:

“The spacecraft took numerous images during the past few years that
showed channels attributed to catastrophic flooding in the last 500
million years. Mars during this period had been considered cold and
dry. These channels are essential to understanding the extent to
which recent hydrologic activity prevailed during such arid
conditions. They also help scientists determine whether the floods
could have induced episodes of climate change.”

“Our findings show the scale of erosion that created the channels
previously was underestimated and the channel depth was at least
twice that of previous approximations,” said Gareth Morgan, a
geologist at the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and
Planetary Studies in Washington and lead author on the paper. “This
work demonstrates the importance of orbital sounding radar in
understanding how water has shaped the surface of Mars.”

Here’s their imaging:

This illustration schematically shows where the Shallow Radar instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected flood channels that had been buried by lava flows in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars.Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Sapienza University of Rome/Smithsonian Institution/USGS
This illustration schematically shows where the Shallow Radar instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected flood channels that had been buried by lava flows in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Sapienza University of Rome/Smithsonian Institution/USGS

 

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