Mars Orbiter Catches a Crater Full of Cracks
In a decidedly wintry-looking scene, frost-filled fractures fills a crater near the north pole of Mars -- as observed by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
A lacy web of bright frost-filled fractures fills a crater near the north pole of Mars in this image, acquired Sept. 20, 2015 with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
The entire crater is around 3 miles (5 km) across and its ancient interior has undergone countless millennia of freeze/thaw cycles that have broken the surface into polygonal shapes. This process is common on Mars and can even be found on Earth, but this particular image depicts it exceptionally nicely.
The fractured surface polygons can be seen to get more compressed nearer to the crater's rim. The image description by the HiRISE team explains:
The crater rim constrains the polygon formation within the crater close to the rim, creating a spoke and ring pattern of cracks. This leads to more rectangular polygons than those near the center of the crater. The polygons close to the center of the crater display a more typical pattern. A closer look shows some of these central polygons, which have smaller polygons within them, and smaller polygons within those smaller polygons, which makes for a natural fractal!
A full map-projected scan of the area is below:
Launched Aug. 12, 2005, the MRO spacecraft has been studying the surface of Mars from orbit since March 2006. Its High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, run by researchers at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, provides incredibly detailed images of Mars' varied terrain in visible and near-infrared wavelengths.
HiRISE is capable of resolving structures on Mars' surface down to about a meter in size from its location in orbit. The image above was acquired from a distance of 196 miles (314 km). You can see many more images from HiRISE here.
Source: HiRISE/University of Arizona
This HiRISE observation shows the northwest quadrant of a fracture-filled crater on Mars.
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.