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Weird Geological Features Spied on Mars

Mars has seen its fair share of mysteries and this new observation of a series of pits with raised rims is baffling geologists.

We may be routinely orbiting, roving, drilling and lasing Mars, searching for elusive traces of life and reconnoitering sites for future human missions, but that doesn't mean studies of the red planet don't throw up surprises. On the contrary.

Take this March 21, 2013 observation by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of the southern edge of Acidalia Planitia, a plain located in the planet's northern hemisphere.

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These irregular depressions with weird raised rims aren't impact craters and they can't be wind-blown features as the pits contain boulders that could not have been moved by the Martian winds. HiRISE mission scientists don't believe they could be caused by volcanism either.

Scientists believe the Acidalia Planitia region of Mars was once the location of a huge ocean, so it seems plausible that it may have been caused by some fluvial process. They may also have been caused by shallow lenses of water ice that have since sublimated into the atmosphere, leaving these small basins. But that doesn't obviously explain why the depressions have raised rims.

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"Ancient glaciation is another possibility, perhaps depositing ice-rich debris next to topographic obstacles," said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen, planetary geologist at the University of Arizona. "Future images of this region may provide clues, but for now this is a mystery."

A wider-angle view of the mystery pits show them hugging a long, raised ridge:

If I had to place a bet, I'd put my money on some kind of ancient permafrost process -- perhaps the water ice sublimation idea or some more complex subsurface process that caused the slumping of material. The long ridge that the pits seem to be formed along is interesting too, so some kind of tectonic process shouldn't be ruled out.

Acidalia Planitia is a fascinating region. It is, after all, home to the famous "Face on Mars" mystery that captivated the world for years until advanced orbital missions proved that the "head" was actually a mesa (a Mars hill) and the "face" was just a trick of the light.

This little mystery of odd depressions, however, probably won't be solved until we can get a robotic or human mission to view the pits up-close. Until then, we can only speculate.

Observation of the strange features discovered by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconaissance Orbiter (MRO) at the southern edge of Acidalia Planitia on Mars. The main cluster of pits on the left side of the photo are approximately 500 meters long and 100 meters wide.

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.