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HiRISE zooms in on Pavonis…

The HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconaissance Orbiter has done it again – sent back a stunningly detailed image of a fascinating part of Mars, that is…

Anyone and everyone “into space” has heard of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars and, probably, in the solar system. But fewer people know the names Ascraeus, Arsia and Pavonis, a trio of smaller volcanoes – sometimes referred to as the “Three Princes” -that lie to the SE of the mighty Olympus…


Pavonis Mons is probably the most famous of the three, because it was featured heavily in Kim Stanley Robinson’s beyond-superb Mars Trilogy sci-fi novels (“Red Mars”, “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars”). In Red Mars, the martian colonists used the summit caldera of Pavonis Mons as the base – literally – of Mars’ first space elevator, which is why I’ve loved it ever since –

Anyway, the latest batch of HiRISE releases features a close-up of an area near the summit of Pavonis Mons, and it features some gorgeous detail. But it’s also a little puzzling, because at first glance the image looks rather blurry and fuzzy, like it’s out of focus. To show you what I mean, here’s a colourisation I did from the RGB slice… click on the image to bring up a full size version…


See? Doesn’t it look blurry? It isn’t of course, because… well, I’ll let the HiRISE site explain…

Pavonis Mons is one of the three giant Tharsis Montes shield volcanoes. Its summit rises so far above the surface that the atmosphere is extremely thin, even for Mars.

Dust that reaches these heights (for example, during major dust storms) is hard to remove, so the upper parts of these volcanoes are covered by vast deposits of dust. The dust is moved a little by the thin winds, producing ripples and other textures near the limit of HiRISE’s resolution. The fluffy, ripply surface looks “smudged” or out of focus, but by looking at some of the small impact craters you can see that the HiRISE camera is, indeed, properly focused. It’s the surface of Mars that is blurry!

The impact craters also show that the dust is not a thin veneer. Instead, it is a thick coat, at least several meters (yards) deep. This mantling of dust hides the details of the lava flows and vents, frustrating volcanologists but delighting those who study dust!

Ah, that explains it! Here are another couple of my totally unscientific colourisations, to bring out some more of that fascinating surface detail…



I love that last one, you can see individual ripples of dust on the surface there… 🙂

But the wider angle view turned out to be even more intriguing than the colour strip, because away from the area imaged in colour are some truly fascinating and bewildering features. I’m no expert, I’m just a fan, so I’m going to just show what I found here and let you all just marvel at the power of HiRISE… and maybe someone on the HiRISE team will drop me a line to tell me what we’re actually looking at! (hint hint!)

Ok, here goes… don’t forget to click on the images to bring up full size versions…


What the frak is going on there?!?! It looks like a small crater, with several strange gullies in the slope on the left, trailing down to the crater floor, and some very disturbed… odd… weird looking terrain on the right. And what’s that thing sticking up into the air, down at the bottom there (about the 7 o’clock position), casting such a long shadow?  

Of course, I couldn’t resist making a colourised version…


In another part of the image, there’s another similar feature – a crater with a distinctly bizarre right hand side (that’s my orientation, the L-R thing, it doesn’t relate to the actual HiRISE pic, ok?)…


And look, down at the bottom there – another protrubrance!


And then I saw this…


That small cluster of craters must have been made when either a single meteoroid broke up above the surface and hit the ground in a hail of stones, or a swarm of meteorites came in and shotgun-blasted the volcano’s side. Just amazing.

THAT’s why I love HiRISE! It just shows us one wonder after another, and it rewards people who take the time to, well, just look a little closer, with yet MORE wonders… 🙂

3 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this! Definitely one of the most interesting photos from Mars in the sense of the strange optical illusion it presents.

    Unfortunately, it somewhat ruins my romantic notion of what it’d be like to climb the solar system’s largest mountains; the closet to the summit, the deeper and finer the dust. Better bring some “sootshoes” and some windshield wipers for your faceshield!

  2. good.nice pictures u got there.im in 6th grade and luckily,my teacher let do a volcanoe on mars for nichilmis or watever u say it.and most information was what i needed.

  3. […] Inspiration: Stuart Atkinson at Cumbrian Sky. […]

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