Mars is sublime

The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 4 2009 7:30 AM

Mars is sublime

Mars is weird. It's small, and cold, and has a thin atmosphere that's almost entirely carbon dioxide, and what isn't CO2 is nitrogen and, bizarrely, argon.

So you expect to see weird landscapes. But even so, Mars has the potential to be really, really weird. Check this out:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Advertisement

hirise_polarlayers

That slightly disturbing image (click to embiggen) is not a microscopic picture of a scientist's colon (at least, not as far as you know). It's actually a region near the Martian south pole. It was taken with the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the area shown is roughly 700 meters across (about 0.4 miles).

What you're seeing are layers of the polar ice cap. The ice is mostly CO2. Mars is so cold that a lot of the cap persists throughout the year, and is called the residual cap. Some of it does sublimate, though, which means it goes right from a solid to a gas. Underneath that layer is something more solid, perhaps water ice, that does not sublimate. As the upper layer partially goes away, it leaves these weird Swiss-cheese-like patterns, revealing the smooth layer below.

This image only shows a small portion of a much larger area where this occurs. Here's the "context image", a zoom out if you will:

hirise_polarlayers_context

I marked the rough outline of the zoomed image in this one (it's rotated about 90 degrees counterclockwise in the zoom). You can see that this odd terrain (aresain?) goes on for kilometers. It really does look like some sort of bacterial colony. But it's actually the result of millennia, maybe millions of years, of constant annual atmospheric deposition and sublimation.

And just as a reminder -- because I love to point this out -- Mars was 250 million kilometers (150 million miles) away from Earth on August 20, 2009, when this image was obtained. Yet MRO was only 250 km above its target, yielding this fine imagery at a resolution of 25 centimeters (10 inches) per pixel. Got a ruler handy? Pick it up, hold it in your hand, and think on the fact that we have spacecraft orbiting Mars, an alien world, that can take pictures of objects on its surface about the size of that ruler.

Man. I love this stuff.

[P.S. If you like this image, the HiRISE page has wallpaper versions of it; the links are at the lower right at that link.]

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Scotland Votes to Remain in U.K.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Can Democrats Keep Counting on Republicans to Offend Women as a Campaign Strategy?

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.