We all sort of know what the surface of Mars looks like – and we’re all wrong. Those geniuses over at NASA have a much better idea thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its powerful camera. The camera, called HiRISE, has been taking spectacular pics for years: It turns out that Mars has a whole lot more fascinating, beautiful and sometimes creepy landscapes than we thought.
To find out just what you’re missing, check out these images and what a little color shifting can do to the incredible world of Mars – and the ongoing search for water and life.
1. Bedrock Hiding Big Secrets
It doesn’t look like much at first glance, but just wait – this is bedrock in the Capri Chasma. As you may know, bedrock is the rock you find underneath soil. NASA is always on the lookout for signs of water on Mars, and this bedrock may have been exposed by ancient floodwaters! More on this water angle in a few slides – stay tuned.
2. Boom Goes the Meteor
We don’t usually think of meteors as striking Mars, but they do it all the time – and it looks a lot like this. This photo is interesting because it’s a very recent strike, and you can see the literal impact it made. Because of Mars’ thin atmosphere and dead soil, the effect is very similar to the craters we see on the moon.
3. Put Your Apron On
This is not a picture of random squiggles, but rather a “debris apron,” which happens when sheer cliffs slowly crumble apart, leaving little landslides of fallen rock and more gentle, sweeping hills. Even in Mars, things don’t last forever.
4. We’re Big Alluvial Fans
Okay, back to water! Scientists are constantly searching for signs of water on Mars. One of the big signs is an “alluvial fan” or piece of the landscape that looks like it was formed by water slowly running down into an ocean or lake. Look at the feathery pattern in the middle – see how it looks worn down by water?
5. But Wait: Water’s Not So Simple
Here’s a pic of the Nepenthes Mensae, which looks a whole lot like a river delta. But there’s a problem with these deltas on Mars – scientists think they could also be caused by crisscrossing meteors that hit the land at an angle. Sometimes it looks like water, but is actually debris from a flaming ball of space rock: Who knew?
6. Not So Red Now, Am I?
We like to think of Mars as red (and the atmosphere does have that scarlet hue) but real colors aren’t so simple. Here we see many color gradations that give Mars a very different feel. Of course, NASA has to do some guesswork on the real colors when processing these images, but they try to get it close.
7. Welcome to the Sahara – Oh Wait
A rare, clear photo of the sand dunes of Mars is very striking. The similarities to deserts on earth are immediately clear. This spot in particular is in the Eastern Noctis Labyrinthus – and just like Earth’s deserts, those dunes can form a fearsome maze.
8. A Cool Greeting
This is called “glacial terrain” which just means that it’s very, very frozen, not that there’s any actual ice there (although there could be). Scientists think that behind these massive glacial objects may be a hidden core of ice that is still on the move. Notice how the landscape almost seems to shimmer.
9. I’ve Got My Eye on You
Part of NASA’s mission is to find good spots to land on Mars for future space voyages. This spot may not look like much, but NASA wants to use it for a 2020 space mission. We don’t pretend to know all the qualifications, but looks like it has some flat areas with a few ridges for shelter if necessary, which could be important.
10. A Song of Ice…and Fire
Mars isn’t just about looking for ice – it’s also about staying out of the way of volcanoes. This part of the planet is called the Tharsis Region, and is the most volcanic area of Mars that scientists have found. Sorry there’s no active lava flows, you’ll just have to use your imagination.
11. We’ve All Got Scars
Here’s a picture of a very recent impact crater on the planet. As you can see it looks very explosive – and for good reason! Not all meteors create big impact holes. Based on their composition, they can also go “boom” with other interesting results…like this.
12. Tis the Season
Did you know Mars had seasons? Of course it does! One of the ways the seasons change on Mars is that dunes form and float around as the year goes on. These seasonal dunes could be very important to understand the ecology of Mars in the past, once we get more information.
13. Up Close and Personal
This is a stunning close up of a Mars gully, which again looks much like the Middle Eastern deserts of Earth. Scientists find pictures like these especially interesting, because they can study small changes in the gully over time and understand how wind, erosion, and geological activity affect the planet’s surface.
14. The Dunes Hide a Secret
These aren’t more meteors – no, these are odd “fans” that form around the dunes, and are another indication of how seasons change on Mars. The thing is, scientists aren’t quite sure what it means yet, although it relates to cooling. We’re going with “Martians celebrating their New Year with fireworks, just like us.”
15. Spider Legs
Don’t get too excited – we know that this again looks like a bunch of dried riverbeds, but the truth is a little different. There’s no sign of water here: Instead, these are cracks in the ground that form as the surface warms and cools. They are called “spiders,” which is a pretty unchill name if you ask us.
16. Go Big or Go Home
Mars has a lot of big stuff: That includes canyons like the Valles Marineris, which is the largest canyon on the planet. This particular image is only a tiny part of it, called the Eos Chasma. Where those shadows get dark – that’s some truly deep canyon shafts there. We assume space monsters are hiding in the Chasma, because of course they are.
17. Let Me Count the Ways (That You Exploded)
Here’s an interesting phenomenon called a pedestal crater. This is an ancient crater that bit deep into the surface, then decayed over time. It crumbled at different rates and spaces because of the different types of rock – each ring you see is another type of rock composition.
18. Shining a Light on Mars
NASA took this picture to study “albedo,” or how well a planet can reflect light. Earth is pretty good at the whole reflection trick, but as you can see Mars also has its moments. This tells NASA a lot about the nature of the surface and atmosphere of Mars.
19. Clues to the Past
Wow, that looks pretty cool, right? Do you see those gentle, well-round squiggles of land? On Earth, that’s a dead giveaway that a glacier passed through in the distant past. Here, scientists believe that Mars once had its own glaciers (we mentioned this before) which created such a unique landscape.
20. But What does it MEAN?
This is a picture of the Utopia Planitia, but we bet you don’t care about that because you’re too busy yelling, “Is that a giant caterpillar? Is it an old river? Is it aliens? IT’S ALIENS, ISN’T IT?” Unfortunately, we’re not sure what it is – just a lot of fractures that happen to line up perfectly. As far as we can tell, it’s merely an unusual geological feature, and no one’s quite sure what caused it yet. Feel free to stick with the aliens theory.
21. Thar She Blows
We’ve mentioned the winds of Mars several times now, but what we haven’t mentioned is that these aren’t your average winds – they are incredibly powerful and can stir up wicked dust storms (like on The Martian). Those winds are responsible for all the dune changes and can scour the land, creating deep furrows like we see here.
22. The “Windy City”
If Mars had a Santa, he would have lived here, near the North Pole. No word on why this spot is called the Windy City, but we’re guess it’s because there’s a lot of wind, along with some interesting geographic features.
23. Putting the Pieces Back Together
So, what happened here? Scientists aren’t sure, but they think that an explosion happened, probably from a falling meteor. The blast exploded nearby rock and threw out tremendous pieces of shrapnel, which became imbedded in the landscape where they stayed…forever. Still look sharp, too.
24. A Little Sci-Fi in Your Photo
Any Frank Herbert fans out there? This oddly hued North Pole field is called “Kolhar” after one of the Dune writer’s fictional planets. Hey, when you mastermind putting a satellite around Mars, you can come up with your own cool names. For now, the Kolhar region is another example of how Mars dune can form, sometimes in striking ways.
25. Image Processing…Processing…
Scientists want to take a closer look at the dunes of Mars to see just how they are formed and how they are different from the ground beneath. However, this stretches their image processing capabilities a little, so we get some odd pictures of dunes in highlight that are very useful for seeing where they begin and end, but not all that realistic. Notice the red bar at the bottom – that’s part of the image that couldn’t be processed. Hey, it happens.
26. Toward the Equator
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the North Pole, but here’s a shot near the equator, where the terrain is notably different.
27. When Mars is Broken
This region is called Ceraunius Fossae, and it’s a mess. Specifically, it’s covered with lots of volcanic activity and enormous cracks in the ground. You can see one such crack in the right on this photo, just to see what it looks like from a great height. Makes Mordor look pretty easy, doesn’t it?
28. Mars Gets Artistic
Pretty, isn’t it? Those gentle curves again bring to mind the possibility of glaciers, but really we just enjoy how unique it looks. On earth, this sort of region would probably be hidden by thick plant growth, so we wouldn’t even know it was there.
29. Studying the Sediment
This image is looking at the edge of the very large Cerberus Palus crater. While the image has been doctored a little to enhance the color difference, you can nevertheless see that even in real life there’s a big difference between the dirt on the right and the left. Craters like these make it easy to study separated sediments and what makes them different.
30. Keeping Watch
Here’s a picture of Mars slowly defrosting as the seasons turn. When areas like this get warmer, scientists study the climate changes – and look for any signs of shifting ice or water.