[meteorite-list] MRO Spacecraft Reveals a More Dynamic Red Planet

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2013 14:46:07 -0800 (PST)
Message-ID: <201312102246.rBAMk72H015540_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


NASA Mars Spacecraft Reveals a More Dynamic Red Planet
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
December 10, 2013

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed to scientists slender
dark markings -- possibly due to salty water - that advance seasonally
down slopes surprisingly close to the Martian equator.

"The equatorial surface region of Mars has been regarded as dry, free
of liquid or frozen water, but we may need to rethink that," said Alfred
McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson, principal investigator
for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science
Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

Tracking how these features recur each year is one example of how the
longevity of NASA orbiters observing Mars is providing insight about changes
on many time scales. Researchers at the American Geophysical Union meeting
Tuesday in San Francisco discussed a range of current Martian activity,
from fresh craters offering glimpses of subsurface ice to multi-year patterns
in the occurrence of large, regional dust storms.

The seasonally changing surface flows were first reported two years ago
on mid-latitude southern slopes. They are finger-like features typically
less than 16 feet (5 meters) wide that appear and extend down steep, rocky
slopes during spring through summer, then fade in winter and return the
next spring. Recently observed slopes stretch as long as 4,000 feet (1,200

McEwen and co-authors reported the equatorial flows at the conference
and in a paper published online Tuesday by Nature Geoscience. Five well-monitored
sites with these markings are in Valles Marineris, the largest canyon
system in the solar system. At each of these sites, the features appear
on both north- and south-facing walls. On the north-facing slopes, they
are active during the part of the year when those slopes get the most
sunshine. The counterparts on south-facing slopes start flowing when the
season shifts and more sunshine hits their side.

"The explanation that fits best is salty water is flowing down the slopes
when the temperature rises," McEwen said. "We still don't have any definite
identification of water at these sites, but there's nothing that rules
it out, either."

Dissolved salts can keep water melted at temperatures when purer water
freezes, and they can slow the evaporation rate so brine can flow farther.
This analysis used data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer
for Mars and the Context Camera on the MRO as well as the Thermal Emission
Imaging System experiment on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Water ice has been identified in another dynamic process researchers are
monitoring with MRO. Impacts of small asteroids or bits of comets dig
many fresh craters on Mars every year. Twenty fresh craters have exposed
bright ice previously hidden beneath the surface. Five were reported in
2009. The 15 newly reported ones are distributed over a wider range of
latitudes and longitudes.

"The more we find, the more we can fill in a global map of where ice is
buried," said Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff,
Ariz. "We've now seen icy craters down to 39 degrees north, more than
halfway from the pole to the equator. They tell us that either the average
climate over several thousand years is wetter than present or that water
vapor in the current atmosphere is concentrated near the surface. Ice
could have formed under wetter conditions, with remnants from that time
persisting today, but slowly disappearing."

Mars' modern climate becomes better known each year because of a growing
set of data from a series of orbiters that have been studying Mars continually
since 1997. That has been almost nine Martian years because a year on
Mars is almost two years long on Earth. Earlier missions and surface landers
have added insight about the dynamics of Mars' atmosphere and its interaction
with the ground.

"The dust cycle is the main driver of the climate system," said Robert
Haberle of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

One key question researchers want to answer is why dust storms encircle
Mars in some years and not in others. These storms affect annual patterns
of water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, freezing into polar
ice caps in winter and replenishing the atmosphere in spring. Identifying
significant variations in annual patterns requires many Martian years
of observations.

The data emerging from long-term studies will help future human explorers
of Mars know where to find resources such as water, how to prepare for
hazards such as dust storms, and where to be extra careful about contamination
with Earth microbes.

Launched in 2005, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its six instruments
have provided more high-resolution data about the Red Planet than all
other Mars orbiters combined. Data are made available for scientists worldwide
to research, analyze and report their findings.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the MRO
and Mars Odyssey missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built both orbiters. The University
of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera,
which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo.

For more information about NASA Mars exploration missions, visit:

For more about HiRISE, visit:

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
guy.webster at jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington
dwayne.c.brown at nasa.gov

Received on Tue 10 Dec 2013 05:46:07 PM PST

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