NASA Mars Picture of the Day: Something Old, Something New

Status Report From: NASAJPL/MSSS
Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Camera
MGS MOC Release No. MOC2-1591, 20 September 2006

Medium-sized view of MGS MOC Picture of the Day, updated daily
NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

When it was launched in 1996, the plan was that Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) would wrap up its mission in 2000. Damage to a hinge connected to a solar panel slowed the orbit insertion aerobraking process by a year, so in 1997 the spacecraft team determined that MGS's mission would end in early 2001. However, the spacecraft and its instruments remained healthy, and its mission was extended. And extended. And extended again. And again. MGS has now been orbiting the red planet for just over nine years. Throughout the mission, data from the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) have emphasized details about some of the very oldest and the very newest features exposed on the planet's surface.

The very ancient and the modern come together in this small, approximately 3 km by 3 km (1.9 mi by 1.9 mi) area on the floor of an unnamed impact crater in western Arabia Terra.

Old are the light-toned, layered mounds scattered across the image. The layers form stair-steps leading to the top of each mound. In most cases, the 'steps' are not clean, but are instead covered with debris eroded from the next layer, or step, above. The mounds are remnants of layered rock that once covered the entire scene. They were deposited as sediment in the large, unnamed crater in which these landforms occur. Their regular thickness and repeated character suggest that episodic, or perhaps cyclic, processes brought sediment to the crater floor. If the crater contained water at the time the sediments were deposited, then they represent lakebed materials. The processes that (a) brought sediment to this site, (b) cemented the sediment to form rock, and (c) eroded the sediment to form the mounds we see today, all occurred at some time in the distant past.

New are the dark-toned sand dunes and intermediate-toned ripples. The dark dunes were formed of sand that in relatively recent times has been blown by wind from the northeast (upper right) toward the southwest (lower left). The dunes have slowly encroached upon the older, light-toned, layered mounds. Surrounding each mound is a suite of intermediate-toned ripples. These are large ripples, relative to counterparts on Earth, and are most likely made up of grains somewhat coarser than sand, typically of several millimeters in size. The ripples form a pattern that is generally radial to each mound, indicating that they formed in winds that interacted with these topographic obstacles. The dark dunes are generally younger than the ripples, as dark sand has encroached upon and over-ridden some of the ripples.

This image is one of the favorites of the MOC operations team at Malin Space Science Systems, because it is not only pretty, it also emphasizes aspects of both the ancient and modern sedimentary processes and materials on Mars. Sediments, sedimentary rocks, and the environments in which they were deposited have been a key theme of the MOC science investigation from the beginning, more than 20 years ago, when MOC was selected by NASA to be built and sent to Mars. The first MOC was aboard Mars Observer when it was lost in 1993; the second MOC was built for MGS and is still operating today.

Location near: 8.8°N, 1.2°W
Image width: ~3 km (~1.9 mi)
Illumination from: lower left
Season: Northern Winter

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Malin Space Science Systems and the California Institute of Technology built the MOC using spare hardware from the Mars Observer mission. MSSS operates the camera from its facilities in San Diego, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Surveyor Operations Project operates the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft with its industrial partner, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, from facilities in Pasadena, California and Denver, Colorado.

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