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The beauty of Mars…

… is clearly, like any other form of beauty, in the eye of the beholder, as I found out by corresponding with a fellow Mars enthusiast…

As a proud and active member of unmannedspaceflight.com – one of the busiest and most respected space enthusiast forums on t’internet – I often post images there that I think other members might find interesting, asking for comments, scientific input, etc. Everyone there knows by now that I’m not a scientist – haha, nowhere near! – but a fully paid up member of the “Pretty Pictures” club. I’m basically a martian sightseer exiled on Earth, and can – and do – happily spend hours just trawling databases and catalogues of images taken by the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, clicking on images at random and zooming in on them with the fantastic IAS Viewer, just looking for scenes and landscapes and features in those landscapes that make me go “Ooh!”. Sometimes my search comes up blank, other times I find a gem – a particularly-impressive crater, a field of dust dunes or a crumbling cliff edge – and Save it to my already-groaning-under-the-weigh-of-Mars-images hard drive, to enhance and colourise and generally mess about with until I’ve created an image that I think represents Mars – or at least the Mars I see in my mind.

Yesterday I was idly trawling the HiRISE catalogue – killing time inbetween wrapping gifts and eating mince pies – and came across Image http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/PSP_005665_1800 . What caught my eye initially was its title – “Change detection in Dark spot”. I thought it was worth a look because change is always a good thing on Mars, after all, it shows us what a dynamic, restless planet Mars really is. So, click of the  mouse… into IAS Viewer… yep, there it is… and fine, it looked just like one of those now-familiar “fresh impact craters” to me – a dark “splash” of colour on a bright background…

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Zoom – and yep, right in the centre there’s a small cluster of craters… proof that an incoming meteorite broke into several different pieces in the air above this place before hitting the ground, one by one…

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But, as impressive and as dramatic as that was, that’s not what caught my eye. What made me go “hmmm” were the many dark trails  and streaks on the terrain around it. There are hundreds of them!

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It was once thought that dark streaks like this were sudden and brief outpourings of melt-water from some underground layer of ice, but we now know that these are “dry dust avalanches” – great clouds of dark martian dust that has been dislodged somehow from its usual surroundings and has slid downslope to lower ground below. ..

Anyway, I thought this was a pretty interesting place, so I posted about it on UMSF in the hope others would too. A couple of people did, but ‘OWW’, one of my fellow Mars nuts wasn’t too overwhelmed, and replied, jokingly:

“Easily impressed huh? Dust, dust and… more dust.”

Ouch! He was right, of course, all I was seeing WAS dust… dust… and more dust… but that wasn’t the point. I was actually impressed by the fact that there was so much dust slipping and sliding about in the area. I was impressed by the thought of all that dust sliding down those slopes cos – hopeless Mars romantic that I am – I can easily imagine standing there and seeing, what, dozens of avalanches of dark dust and stones hissing and slithering down the sides of the ridges or plateaus or whatever they are all around me…

But the obvious question is what triggered all that activity in the first place? Was it gentle geological rumblings in the rocky layers beneath the mighty volcanoes that lie to the east? Was it a tremor running through ground after a faraway meteorite impact? I’ve no idea; I’m a sightseer, Jim, not a geologist… 😉

Now, having had more time to look at the image, I can see that some areas of the landscape have more streaks than others, and it seems to me that there are lots more “streaks” closer to the dark spot than there are farther away. Hmmm. That can’t be a coincidence, can it? 

Maybe… maybe… that’s quite a fresh impact site, and maybe… maybe… when the chunks of space rock came screaming out of the sky and smashed into the surface of Mars here, blasting out those small craterlets, the force of their arrival shook and shuddered the landscape all around and triggered dust avalanches by the hundred..?

Wow… imagine seeing that… imagine standing there, right there at that very place on Mars, in your spacesuit and backpack, dwarfed beneath the huge salmon-pink sky… out of the corner of your eye you glimpse a flash of light, and look up to see a fireball chumbling across the sky, smoke trailing out from behind it. As you watch the fireball it breaks into different pieces, each one falling towards the ground on its own now, trailing its own tail of smoke and fire…

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Then they strike the horizon in a succession of camera bulb flashes, and are gone… Then the ground beneath your feet starts to tremble and shudder, not very strongly, but strong enough that it can be felt through the thick insulating soles of your boots – the shock wave from the impacts…

Then you see them – clouds of cinnamon and ochre dust puffing up all around you, a dozen miniature mushroom clouds… a dozen more… now there are maybe a hundred… Across from where you are standing you see avalanches of dust slipping and sliding and hissing down the slopes there…

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…and you realise that beneath every one of those slowly rising mushroom clouds is a similar avalanche and that the whole landscape is being changed, very slightly and very subtly, as you stand there…

Is that what happened? Is that what we’re seeing when we look at this image? I’ve no idea. I might be – I almost certainly am! – 1000% hopelessly wrong, and I’m just adding 2 and 2 to get 50, but that’s okay, I’ll lose no sleep over that, because MY Mars IS that Mars, and even if that isn’t what happened here it’s what happened elsewhere on the planet at some time.

And that’s my point, you see? Images like the one I found during my random trawling can either be looked at as purely scientific data, showing just rocks and dust… and more dust… and more dust… or you can use them as a key to open up the Narnia wardrobe of your mind and let your imagination run free…

And see the true beauty of Mars.

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