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Dust Devils Rip Up Mars' 'Etch A Sketch' Surface

In side-by-side comparisons of observations of the same Mars region years apart, the active Martian atmosphere acts like an Etch A Sketch, rubbing out dust devils' tracks only for them to re-form years later.

Dust devils are a well-known atmospheric phenomena on Mars, and as these new observations show, the devilish vorticies can carve beautiful patterns in the Martian dust.

What's more -- in side-by-side comparisons of observations of the same Mars region years apart -- it appears that the active Mars atmosphere acts like an Etch A Sketch, rubbing out the dust devils' tracks, only for the dust devils to make brand new tracks years later.

BIG PIC: Dust Devil Spotted Whirling Across Mars

Imaged by the ever-impressive High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), these dust devil tracks were spotted meandering over the Nili Fossae region of the Red Planet's surface.

Dust devils on Mars form in a similar way to their terrestrial counterparts: warm air near the surface rises into cooler air above. If the conditions are right, the pocket of air will begin to rotate and contract, forming small whirlwinds sometimes reaching hundreds of meters into the atmosphere.

BIG PIC: Monster Martian Dust Devil Caught On Camera

These whirling dervishes pick up the top layers of Martian dust as they travel, uncovering the darker layers beneath. The contrast of dark dust devil tracks and light upper dusting makes the tracks easily highlighted for the high-resolution optics of HiRISE.

The advantage of having a long-duration satellite in orbit around Mars is that detailed comparisons can be image of the same location years apart (as shown above). Nili Fossae has undergone obvious changes from 2009 to 2013; previous dust devil tracks have been erased and totally new tracks have taken their place.

"This tells us that there has been at least one dust storm since then to erase the old tracks, and lots of dust devil activity to create the new ones," writes Corwin Atwood-Stone, graduate student of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona -- the department that manages the HiRISE mission.

In addition to the Etch A Sketch-like removal of dark tracks, HiRISE has spotted linear features scoured down slopes of dunes interjecting the curved dust devil tracks (pictured above). And, like the dust devil tracks, these linear downflows are erased over time and new ones form years later.

All these features in the Mars regolith are indicative of a highly dynamic Martian atmosphere that is continuously shaping the surface, providing HiRISE with a smorgasbord of interesting landscapes that have atmospheric phenomena leaving their mark, often in beautiful, elegant ways.

Detail of dust devil tracks in the Nili Fossae region of Mars as imaged by the HiRISE camera in March 2013.

The Martian surface is peppered with impact craters of all shapes, sizes and ages. However, many of the craters are just plain weird.

But just how 'weird' is weird?

Curious, Discovery News asked the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team which craters they considered to be the strangest. HiRISE is the most advanced camera to be put into Mars orbit. It is attached to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and currently snapping features on the Red Planet's surface -- it has seen a ton of strange objects (sadly, it hasn't found a top secret military base yet, despite what you may have heard to the contrary). So, let's take a tour of some of the weirdest craters Mars has on offer...

Special thanks to Ari Espinoza of the HiRISE team for helping to compile this list (originally published Dec. 30, 2011. Updated May 7, 2013)

Crater, Horst and Graben: Is that a piece of modern art? Actually, it's an impact crater that has been bent and twisted by tectonic processes. Along the fault line that crosses this crater, blocks of rock are forced upward (called "horst") and downward (called "graben"). This is interesting to planetary scientists as it shows that tectonic activity was occurring after the crater was formed.

Rolling Stones Logo? If you squint and use a little imagination, you may see the Rolling Stones' logo. Well, that's what the HiRISE team told us anyway. (I'm still squinting...) In reality, it's an impact crater on a sloping surface. Presumably, the "tongue" of material is slipping down the slope.

Bulls-Eye Impact? Did a small meteorite have the incredible fortune to slam into the center of a larger impact crater? Probably not.

This is one of several examples of "terraced" craters where alternating layers of hard and soft material in the surface layers of the Martian surface have been hit by a single meteorite. The result is a concentric nesting of ridges inside the same crater. Pretty!

What the...? What's the weirdest kind of impact crater? The kind that may not be an impact crater at all (but looks like one). On the slopes of Pavonis Mons, one of Mars' shield volcanoes, this crater has a hole in the middle. The hole is a "skylight," or the collapsed roof of a subterranean lava tube. The loose material above the collapsed roof appears to have slumped into the skylight, creating a crater lookalike. But what caused the roof of the lava tube to collapse? Could a meteorite be to blame? No idea, but HiRISE will be taking some more photos of this little oddity to find out.

Two-for-One Crater Special: What could be worse than a meteorite hitting you? Two meteorites hitting you... at the same time! Yes, that's exactly what happened here. It seems highly likely that one object tumbled through the Martian atmosphere and split in two. In doing so, the two halves impacted in the same location. As can be seen from this example, both halves were likely the same size, producing a rather satisfying imprint.

Another Double-Whammy: Looks like double-impacts are becoming a trend! This time, in addition to the two co-joined impact craters, HiRISE has picked out the rays that are produced when space rocks slam into the Martian surface.

Hit Me Baby Three More Times? It may seem hard to believe, but Mars also has triple-impact craters! It stands to reason that after countless impacts, you might get the occasional meteorite that splits into three when blasting through the atmosphere. So here you have it, a triple-impact crater.

A Triple Ricochet Crater: Another three (likely simultaneous) impacts, only this time their craters are elongated. This suggests the meteorites hit the surface at an oblique angle.

A Simple Blemish: In an apparently featureless plain in the north polar region, a single, small crater appears as the only blemish. Looking closely, the crater seems to be filled with ice.

Bubbly Landscape: This cluster of impact craters in the northern plains of Utopia Planitia contain strange uplift features likely caused by ground ice upheaval.

Crater of Mud: The strange concentric rings inside this crater near the Martian volcano Elysium Mons are thought to be the ancient remnants of a mud flow. Therefore, it is believed this crater wasn't caused by an impact from space, but by material flowing away from under the surface. The crater was then formed as the material above slumped.

Cracked Cookie Crater? There's an odd pair of craters in Hrad Vallis that the HiRISE website describe as a "pair of odd craters." Why so... odd? Well, to me, the larger crater looks like a cracked cookie, probably crevasses and faults carved across its diameter.

The Crater with a Robot Visitor: What makes this crater weird? Well, it's not the crater, it's the little man-made robot that's parked on the crater's western rim that makes this scene weirdly awesome. It's even weirder to think that a robot in Mars orbit has taken a photo of another robot on the Martian surface a couple of hundred miles below. Robots looking out for robots on alien worlds...

This is of course NASA's tenacious Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity that keeps exploring the Martian surface since exceeding its primary mission duration of 3 months back in 2004. Opportunity now has company on the Martian surface -- on Aug. 5, 2012, the nuclear-powered Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater to look for clues behind the habitability of the red planet.

In March 2013, HiRISE spotted a series of non-impact craters in Acidalia Planitia. These may not be impact craters, but they are unlike any other crater discovered on Mars to date! So the process behind their formation will remain a mystery... for now.