Bill DunfordJul 07, 2013

The Ice Pits of Mars

The polar ice caps of Mars are instantly recognizable. But take a close look at them, and the familiar gives way to some pretty strange landscapes.

Consider, for example, the "Swiss cheese" terrain that marks the icy reaches of the southern cap. These are places where carbon dioxide ice sublimates (turns from a solid directly to a gas) leaving behind pits a few meters deep. The pits form weird figures and patterns that change shape over time.

As if that weren't enough, in one of these regions something left a four-kilometer-wide scar in the shape of a nearly perfectly circular pit. Exactly what happened? It's hard to say for sure. According to the team poring over high-resolution images obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the pit could be an impact crater, but where is the material that was blasted out of it? It could be a collapse pit, but where are the fractures typically seen around such features? It doesn't help that the whole thing is covered in dry ice Swiss cheese several meters thick.

Mysterious Feature Near the Martian South Pole
Mysterious Feature Near the Martian South Pole This circular depression on the south polar ice cap is about four kilometers across. It first caught the eye of Mars explorers in the 70s, and they still debate whether it's an impact crater or a collapse feature. The 'Swiss cheese' terrain consists of shallow pits where carbon dioxide ice has sublimated away. This landscape was imaged by the high-resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on four separate occasions pictured here. From left to right: March 2013, May 2013, September 2007, and December 2012. Click to see at full size.Image: NASA / JPL / UA

Here's another look, zooming in directly on the center of the pit. More detail emerges, but is it enough to settle the question?

The Center
The Center A high-resolution look at the center of a circular depression on the south polar ice cap of Mars. Captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.Image: NASA / JPL / UA

It's just another example of how much exploration is left for those who will come after us: maybe robots, maybe human travelers. We can only make educated guesses about exactly what they'll find in the ice pits of Mars.

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