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Otherworldly Mars image shows ripples sculpted by dust devils

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a hauntingly beautiful image of the surface of Mars, showing how the landscape there is sculpted by winds.

The image, taken from orbit by the ESA and Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), shows the Hooke Crater area in the southern highlands of Mars. The false colors are due to the filters used by TGO’s CaSSIS camera, which looks in the infrared wavelength to capture more details of the surface mineralogy.

A fascinating and otherworldly landscape near Hooke Crater in Mars’ southern highlands.
Chaotic mounds, wind-sculpted ripples, and dust devil tracks: This image shows a fascinating and otherworldly landscape near Hooke Crater in Mars’ southern highlands. The image was taken by the CaSSIS camera onboard the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on February 1, 2021, and shows part of Argyre Planitia, centered at 46.2°S/318.3°E. ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

This unusual-looking scenery is par for the course on Mars, where the thin atmosphere, high winds, and large amounts of dust combine to create striking features on the surface.

“This type of scenery is similar to ‘chaotic terrain’: A kind of broken, disrupted terrain seen across Mars where haphazard groups of variously sized and shaped rocks — irregular knobs, conical mounds, ridges, flat-topped hills known as mesas — clump together, often enclosed within depressions,” the European Space Agency explains. “There are around 30 regions of chaotic terrain defined on Mars (see ESA Mars Express views of Ariadnes Colles, Pyrrhae Regio, and Iani Chaos for just a small sample); while this small patch has not been defined as one of these, its appearance is certainly chaotic.”

Close-up image of the false-colored contrast (blue) indicating whorls from dust devils and canyons.
ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

When seen up close, you can see the blue-tinted tendrils stretching out across the image. These are the tracks of dust devils, whirlwinds which are like tiny tornadoes and are common on Mars. When hot air at the surface of the planet rises quickly through cooler air above it, it forms an updraft that can begin to rotate and create a dust devil. This spinning column of air travels across the planet’s surface, leaving the distinctive tracks, before petering out.

ESA notes that the tracks seen in this image appear to travel on a north-south orientation, which could be the result of local winds blowing in that direction. Learning more about the <artian weather, including its winds, is the major focus of one of the instruments aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover. The MEDA instrument collects data on wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and the amount of dust in the atmosphere in order to better understand the martian weather system.

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