If you’ve ever visited the Grand Canyon in the southwestern U.S. you know why it has the name it does—the vistas from the rim of this geological wonder are simply breathtaking, and it’s even more amazing to realize that it was all carved over the course of millions of years through the erosive action of the Colorado River. But there’s an even grander canyon system in our Solar System, and it’s not on Earth: it’s Mars’ Valles Marineris, which spans over 2,500 miles and is four times deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona—in fact, if Valles Marineris were on Earth it could stretch clear across the continental United States!
It’s thought that Mars’ canyon was created as the planet cooled, its crust contracting and splitting apart (as opposed to gradual excavation by a flowing river.) But there are sections of Valles Marineris that appear to have had a watery past, and new maps made by the USGS from data acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—which has been in orbit around Mars since March 2006—reveal regions that were once likely covered by liquid water.
“The major finding of this work is that the layers of rock exposed within what is called western Candor Chasma record a past environment where groundwater was abundant and occasionally seeped onto the ground surface, forming pools,” said USGS scientist Dr. Chris Okubo, lead author of the maps. “These pools would have been habitable for life, just as they are on Earth. Dust and sand blown into these pools may have buried and preserved evidence of past Martian life, which would be present as fossils within the rocks that we see today.”
Mars isn’t a planet well-known for its natural satellites but it actually does have two small moons. The larger, Phobos, is an irregularly-shaped, heavily grooved and cratered world only about 17 miles (27 km) across at its widest. It orbits Mars so closely that it completes 3 orbits every day, and isn’t even visible from some parts of the planet. But Phobos has an even smaller companion in orbit: Deimos, which at the most 7.5 miles across is half Phobos’ size. Deimos orbits Mars much further away as well, taking about 30 hours to complete one orbit.
Just to remind you that things are still indeed going “boom” in our Solar System, here is a cluster of fresh craters on Mars created by an impact that occurred sometime between 2008 and 2014.
The craters are a result of a meteorite that broke apart during entry, striking the surface as fragments within a localized area. The largest crater’s ejecta field spans about 100 meters across.
It’s kinda like Mars’ way of saying “how’s that space program coming along?”
The HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is specifically designed to take super high-resolution images of the surface of Mars but it also does a pretty darn good job capturing pictures of other objects too—like Jupiter and its Galilean moons, several hundred million miles away! The image above was captured in expanded color (that is, it includes wavelengths in infrared) by HiRISE on January 11, 2007, and shows the giant planet from Mars orbit.
Mars and Jupiter were at opposition at the time, only about 345 million miles apart.
Here’s a view of our home planet and its lovely Moon captured from 127 million miles away by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 20, 2016. The sunlit part of Earth shows eastern Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Australia with ice-covered Antarctica visible as a bright white spot. The Moon has been brightened in this image, since it would be too dark in relation to a properly-exposed Earth to be readily visible (and I added more dark background to frame them a bit better.) But the positions and sizes of the two worlds are as captured by the HiRISE instrument, which was designed to map the surface of Mars in exquisite detail but occasionally is aimed to take a look back homeward.