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VIDEO: Twister on Mars!

AN AFTERNOON WHIRLWIND on Mars lofts a twisting column of dust more 800 metres into the air in this image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

HiRISE captured the image on February 16, 2012, while the orbiter passed over the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars. In the area observed, paths of many previous whirlwinds, or dust devils, are visible as streaks on the dusty surface.

The active dust devil displays a delicate arc produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height. The dust plume is about 30 metres in diameter.

The image was taken during the time of Martian year when that planet is farthest from the Sun. Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the Sun’s rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the Sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been examining Mars with six science instruments since 2006. Now in an extended mission, the orbiter continues to provide insights into the planet’s ancient environments and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts and seasonal frosts continue to affect the Martian surface today. This mission has returned more data about Mars than all other orbital and surface missions combined.

Adapted from information issued by Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona.

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VIDEO: When worlds (seem to) collide

LAST YEAR, EUROPE’S MARS EXPRESS spacecraft—in orbit around Mars—underwent a special manoeuvre to observe a conjunction between Jupiter and the larger of Mars’ two moons, Phobos. A conjunction is when two unrelated astronomical bodies appear to line up in the sky.

This sequence of images shows Phobos moving from right to left through the camera’s field of view and then disappearing from the field of view. At the moment when Mars Express, Phobos and Jupiter were in a line, Phobos was 11,389 km from the spacecraft, while Jupiter was more than 529,000,000 km away.

Because Jupiter was nearly 50,000 times as far away as Phobos, the largest planet in the Solar System (140,000 km in diameter) appears much smaller than the Martian moon.

While Mars Express and Phobos were both moving through space, the spacecraft’s camera was fixed on Jupiter. The sequence includes a total of 104 individual images that were taken over a span of 68 seconds.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

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Worlds that pass in the night

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft—currently in orbit about Mars—performed a special manoeuvre that enabled it to observe an unusual alignment of Jupiter and the martian moon Phobos. The impressive images have now been processed into a movie of this rare event.

At the moment when Mars Express, Phobos and Jupiter aligned on 1 June 2011, there was a distance of 11,389 kilometres between the spacecraft and Phobos, and a further 529 million kilometres to Jupiter.

The High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express was kept fixed on Jupiter for the event, ensuring that the planet remained static in the frame while Phobos ‘drifted’ through. The operation returned a total of 104 images over a period of 68 seconds, all of them taken using the camera’s super-resolution channel.

By timing the exact moment Jupiter passed behind Phobos, the observation is helping to verify and improve our knowledge of the orbital position of the martian moon.

Martian moon Phobos

Phobos is the larger of Mars' two small moons.

Phobos is the larger of Mars’ two moons, the other being Deimos. Phobos is shaped a bit like a potato, with dimensions of 27 x 22 18 kilometres. It is thought to be covered by about 100 metres of regolith…broken rock and dust.

Phobos is named after the Greek god of the same name, and means ‘fear’. Deimos also is named after a Greek god, and means ‘dread’. Both were the son of the Greek god of Mars, Ares.

The images shown here were processed at the Department of Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing at the Institute of Geological Sciences of the Freie Universität Berlin.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Video courtesy ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum). Phobos image courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona.

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Scars on Mars

Elongated crater on Mars

This elongated crater on Mars is about 78km in length and reaches a depth of 2km. It was probably formed by the impact of a train of projectiles.

A NEW IMAGE OF AN ELONGATED impact crater in the southern hemisphere of Mars hints at a violent origin. Scientists think it could have been carved out by a train of meteoroid projectiles striking the planet at a shallow angle.

Image of a region of Mars including Huygens crater

The elongated crater (centre) is located near the 450km-wide Huygens crater.

The image above was captured by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft on 4 August 2010, and the smallest objects distinguishable by the camera are about 15m across.

The unnamed crater sits just to the south of the much larger Huygens basin (see image at right). It is about 78km in length, opens from just under 10km wide at one end to 25km at the other, and reaches a depth of 2km.

Impact craters are generally round because the projectiles that create them push into the ground before the shockwave of the impact can explode outwards. So why is this one elongated?

The clue comes from the surrounding smattering of material, thrown out in the initial impact. This ‘ejecta blanket’ is shaped like a butterfly’s wings, with two distinct lobes. It hints that two projectiles, possibly halves of a once-intact body, slammed into the surface here.

And the formation of this sort of elongated feature is not finished. In a few tens of millions of years, the Martian moon Phobos will plough into the planet, breaking up in the process, and likely creating new crater chains across the surface.

3D view of the crater

A striking perspective view of the crater.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / NASA / MGS / MOLA Science Team.

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Crater on Mars

Part of the Schiaparelli Basin on Mars

This image shows a small part of Mars' huge Schiaparelli Basin (flat area on the left-hand side of the image) with a 42km-wide crater embedded in its rim (bottom right).

SCHIAPARELLI IS A LARGE IMPACT BASIN about 460 km across, located in the eastern Terra Meridiani region of Mars’ equatorial region.

The image here shows just a tiny part of the basin’s northwestern rim, cutting diagonally across the image from top left to bottom right (ie. the left-hand side of the image is part of Schiaparelli; everything else is outside the basin). The prominent crater at the bottom of the image is 42km wide and is embedded in Schiaparelli’s rim.

The image was taken on 15 July 2010 by the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. Ground resolution of the image is about 19 metres per pixel.

See the full-size (1.2MB) image here. Don’t forget to zoom in!

The image below shows a radar altimeter map of the entire Schiaparelli Basin, made by the Mars Orbital Laser Altimeter aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The large crater shown in the image above, is visible in this radar map on the rim of the basin at the 10 o’clock position (the orientation of the photo and map are turned 90 degrees to each other).

Radar map of the Schiaparelli Basin

Radar map of the Schiaparelli Basin. Colours indicate altitude in metres, as per the scale at top.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / NASA.

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Mars’ moon seen close-up

Mars Express image of Phobos

The larger of Mars' two moons, Phobos, as seen in a newly returned image from Europe's Mars Express spacecraft. The image has been enhanced to illuminate darker areas. The resolution is 4.1 metres per pixel.

MARS EXPRESS HAS RETURNED images from its close fly-by of one of Mars’ moons, Phobos, on January 9, 2011. The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft zipped past the moon at a distance of only 100 kilometres.

Phobos is the larger and closer of the two moons of Mars, the other being Deimos. Both moons were discovered in 1877. With a mean radius of 11.1 km, Phobos is 7.24 times as massive as Deimos. It is named after the Greek god Phobos (which means “fear”), a son of Ares (Mars).

A small, irregularly shaped body, Phobos orbits about 9,377 km from the centre of Mars, closer to its planet than any other known planetary moon. It orbits so close to the planet that it moves around Mars faster than Mars itself rotates. As a result, from the surface of Mars it appears to rise in the west, move rapidly across the sky (in 4 h 15 min or less) and set in the east.

Phobos’ orbital radius is decreasing, and it will eventually either impact the surface of Mars or break up into a planetary ring.

Phobos is one of the least-reflective bodies in the Solar System, and features a large impact crater, Stickney crater.

Here’s a video of Phobos compiled from images taken by Mars Express and NASA’s Viking spacecraft.

Keeping an eye on Mars

Mars Express is Europe’s first planetary mission. At launch, the mission consisted of an orbiter carrying seven instruments for remote sensing observations of the planet, and a lander (Beagle 2) for on-the-spot measurements of Martian rock and soil.

While approaching Mars on 19 December 2003, Beagle 2 was released and started its 6-day journey to the planet’s surface. However, the attempts to communicate with it on 25 December 2003, the date of its expected touchdown, were not successful. The Beagle 2 mission was declared lost on 6 February 2004. In contrast, the Mars Express orbiter started science observations as planned in January 2004, and since then it has been delivering an incredible amount of scientific results.

The ‘Express’ part of the name highlights the fact that the spacecraft was built more quickly than any other comparable planetary mission. In fact, it took only five years from mission approval to launch.

In addition to global studies of the surface, subsurface and atmosphere of Mars with unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution, the unifying theme of the Mars Express mission from orbit is the search for water in its various states, everywhere on the planet by all its seven instruments using different techniques.

Artist's concept of the Fobos-Grunt mission

Artist's concept of the Russian Fobos-Grunt mission, due for launch later this year.

The mission was originally planned for one Martian year (687 days). It has already been extended three times, and is now funded for operations until the end of 2012.

Russia to try again with Mars mission

Fobos-Grunt (meaning “Phobos Ground”) is a planned unmanned Russian “sample return” mission to Phobos. (The Chinese Mars orbiter Yinghuo-1 will be piggyback with the mission.) Scheduled for launch late 2011 or early 2012, Fobos-Grunt will be the first Russian interplanetary mission since the failed Mars 96 mission.

If successful, this will be the first large extraterrestrial sample from a planetary body brought back to Earth since the last sample return mission by Luna 24 in 1976. (The Japanese Hayabusa probe has returned with a sample from 25143 Itokawa in June 2010, but the sample only consisted of some particles of dust.)

Fobos-Grunt will also study Mars from orbit, including its atmosphere and dust storms, plasma and radiation. It is currently scheduled to be launched in November 201.

The journey to Mars is scheduled to take about ten months. The spacecraft will then spend several months studying the planet and its moons from orbit, before landing on Phobos. The current timeline is for arrival in October 2012 and landing in February 2013.

Immediately after the touchdown, the lander will load a soil sample into a return rocket. In case of a breakdown of communications with mission control, it can enter an emergency mode to collect samples and still send them home in the return rocket. Normal collection could last from two days to a week.

Mars Express image of Phobos

Image of Phobos with a resolution of 8.2 metres per pixel. The ellipses mark the spots previously planned (red) and currently considered (blue) as landing sites for the Russian Fobos-Grunt mission.

The robotic arm can collect rocks up to about half an inch in diameter. It ends in a pipe-shaped tool that splits to form a claw. This encloses a piston that will push the soil sample into an artillery-shell-shaped container. A light-sensitive photo-diode in the claw will help scientists confirm that the device did scoop material. They hope also to see images of trenches the claw leaves on the surface. The manipulator should perform 15 to 20 scoops yielding a total of 85 to 160 g of soil.

The return rocket will sit atop the spacecraft, and will need to rise at 35 km/h to escape Phobos’ gravity on the return journey. To protect experiments remaining on the lander, springs will vault the rocket to a safe height, at which its engines will fire and begin manoeuvres for the eventual trip to Earth.

The lander’s experiments will continue in-situ on Phobos’ surface for a year.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phobos-Grunt.

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