Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


HiRISE Camera Details Dynamic Wind Action on Mars

Mars has an ethereal, tenuous atmosphere at less than 1 percent the surface pressure of Earth, so scientists working on The University of Arizona's High Resolution Imaging Experiment, or HiRISE, are challenged to explain the complex, wind-sculpted landforms they're now seeing in unprecedented detail.

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the most powerful camera to orbit another planet, can see 20-inch-diameter features while flying at about 7,500 mph between 155 and 196 miles above the Martian surface. HiRISE is giving researchers eye-opening new views of wind-driven Mars geology.

One of the main questions has been if winds on present-day Mars are strong enough to form and change geological features, or if wind-constructed formations were made in the past, perhaps when winds speeds and atmospheric pressures were higher, HiRISE team members say.

"We're seeing what look like smaller sand bedforms on the tops of larger dunes, and, when we zoom in more, a third set of bedforms topping those,"

HiRISE co-investigator Nathan Bridges of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said. "On Earth, small bedforms can form and change on time scales as short as a day."

There are two kinds of "bedforms," or wind-deposited landforms. They can be sand dunes, which are typically larger and have distinct shapes. Or they can be ripples, which is sand mixed with coarser, millimeter-sized particles.

Ripples are typically smaller, more linear structures.

HiRISE also shows detail in sediments deposited by winds on the lee side of rocks. Such rock "windtails" show which way the most current winds have blown, Bridges said. Such features have been seen before, but only by rovers and landers, never an orbiting camera. Researchers can now use HiRISE images to infer wind directions over the entire planet.

Scientists discovered miles-long, wind-scoured ridges called "yardangs" with the first Mars orbiter, Mariner 9, in the early 1970s, Bridges said. New HiRISE images reveal surface texture and fine-scale features that are giving scientists insight on how yardangs form.

"HiRISE is showing us just how interesting layers in yardangs are," Bridges said. "For example, we see one layer that appears to have rocks in it. You can actually see rocks in the layer, and if you look downslope, you can see rocks that we think have eroded out from that rocky layer above."

HiRISE shows that some layers in the yardangs are made of softer materials that have been modified by wind, he added. The soft material could be volcanic ash deposits, or the dried up remnants of what once were mixtures of ice and dust, or something else.

"The fact that we see layers that appear to be rocky and layers that are obviously soft says that the process that formed yardangs is no simple process but a complicated sequence of processes," Bridges said.

Scientists since the 1970s Viking missions have puzzled over what appears to be dust covering Mars' 6-to-13-mile-high volcanoes. Near the volcanic summits, the air is about one one-thousandth of Earth's atmospheric pressure.

"HiRISE keeps showing interesting things about terrains that I expected to be uninteresting," said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen of the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "I was surprised by the diversity of morphology of the thick dust mantles. Instead of a uniform blanket of smooth dust, there are often intricate patterns due to the action of the wind and perhaps light cementation from atmospheric volatiles."

HiRISE images show that what covers the slopes of the high Martian volcanoes are definitely dunes or ripples that appear to have an organized 'reticulate' structure possibly formed by winds blowing from multiple directions, Bridges said.

"On Earth, winds blowing from many different directions form what are called 'star dunes,' and these look somewhat like those," Bridges said. "The reticulate surface looks like a network of connected wind-blown dunes and ripples.

"The fact that the air pressure near the volcano tops is so low and the material is dust challenges us to understand what these features are," he said. "Perhaps the dust is clumping together and making sand-size material.

But how this stuff can be blown around this low pressure is at the edge of our understanding of aeolian physics.

"Possibly the bedforms on the volcanoes formed under a different Martian climate in the past, when atmospheric density was greater," Bridges said.

"But I'm not sure that's the case, because you can see evidence that a lot of the mantle appears to be fairly recent."

HiRISE team member Paul Geissler of the U.S. Geological Survey, in Flagstaff, Ariz., has discovered from HiRISE images that dark streaks coming from Victoria Crater are probably streaks of dark sand blown out from the crater onto the surface. Scientists had wondered if wind might have blown away lighter-colored surface material, exposing a darker underlying surface.

Geissler, a member of the Mars Exploration Rover team, is comparing HiRISE images with images the Opportunity rover has taken at Victoria Crater.

Bridges is lead author on the paper titled "Windy Mars: A dynamic planet as seen by the HiRISE camera" in the Geophysical Research letters in December.

McEwen is among the paper's co-authors.

Information about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft is online at The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, based in Denver, is the prime contractor and built the spacecraft. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., of Boulder, Colo., built the HiRISE camera operated by the UA.

CONTACT: Nathan Bridges (818-393-7799; Alfred McEwen (520-621-4573;

Lori Stiles | University of Arizona
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht A new kind of quantum bits in two dimensions
19.03.2018 | Vienna University of Technology

nachricht 'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region
16.03.2018 | American Institute of Physics

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

A new kind of quantum bits in two dimensions

19.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists have a new way to gauge the growth of nanowires

19.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>