New photo of Mars shows scars from the Red Planet’s ancient past

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft has captured a stunning new image of the complex geology of the Red Planet’s surface.

The new image from the orbiter’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) focuses on the slopes of a vast volcanic plateau called Thaumasia Planum. Deep surface fissures and water-carved valleys trickle down the slope of this volcanic region, offering clues to Mars’ ancient past.

The surface features in this region appear to be very varied, with the highest peaks rising a whopping 14,763 feet (4,500 meters) above the lowest reaches of the plateau. These peaks and valleys, formed almost four billion years ago, have undergone very little change, so they give an idea of ​​what Mars was like at that time.

Related: Mars is a ‘winter wonderland’ in this frosty (and stunning) image from space

The Thaumasia Planum region is believed to have formed in the earliest days of Mars and is mostly made up of huge lava flows that covered the surface in volcanic ash and dust before tectonic activity and flowing water created the amazing features we see today. European Space Agency (ESA) statement.

“This was a turbulent time, and many of Mars’ prominent features were just beginning to take shape,” the ESA said in a statement. (will open in a new tab). “Tharsis volcanoes, one of the largest in the solar system, are located near Thaumasia Planum; the load and stress that comes with the formation of these volcanoes may have prompted this region to begin to collapse before these volcanoes then flooded the area with lava.”

This color-coded topographic image shows the Nectaris Fossa and the Protva Valley on Mars. (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) (will open in a new tab)

Then the planet probably experienced active tectonics, causing the earth to shift and move. In turn, as the lava flowed across the surface and then cooled and solidified, the unstable earth created “wrinkle ridges” as the planet’s crust contracted and stretched.

“One of the most significant ridges is visible to the lower right of center. [of the image] like an unstable diagonal line drawn on the surface,” the ESA said in a statement.

Active tectonics would also have caused significant stresses in the planet’s crust, leading to the deep surface cracks we see today. These fissures, known as Nectaris Fossae, run through the center of the new image and are believed to have formed in connection with the Valles Marineris canyon system – the largest in the solar system – located just north of Thaumasia Planum.

In addition to once active tectonics, water is believed to have flowed across the Martian surface about 3.8 billion years ago, cutting into rock and carving deep channels that we today know as the Protva Valley. These channels range from wide and shallow to deeply eroded valleys, such as the dense patch captured in the lower right corner of the new image.

However, “the origin of these water currents remains unclear; they appear to occur at different heights, which means that water could have seeped through the subsurface layers of Mars,” the ESA said in a statement.

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