Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton

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Old ripples

April 25, 2016

A Piece of Mars: In this 480×270 m scene (0.3×0.17 mi), there are a bunch of “ripples” spaced by 5-20 m (the quotes are because we don’t know yet if these are ripples, dunes, or some other new kind of bedform). They’re old: they’re eroded by winds blowing from the bottom to the top of the frame (exposing layers on the upwind side), and if you look carefully you’ll see some craters superposed on them. The craters don’t have any obvious ejecta blankets, which suggests they’re not that young either, so there’s been enough time for the ejecta to erode away. (HiRISE ESP_017766_1535, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Stripes by wind and gravity

April 19, 2016

A Piece of Mars: This scene (800×450 m or 0.5×0.28 mi) is a steep slope, with high rocky outcrops on the upper right and both gullies and ripples heading downslope to the lower left. The wider, brighter stripes are gullies that were carved by stuff eroding from the outcrops and falling downhill, just like on Earth. Beneath that are some finer stripes: this time the straight lines are made by a combination of wind blowing sand into ripples (from upper left to lower right) and gravity elongating the ripples downslope (stretching them from upper right to lower left). (HiRISE ESP_044997_1755 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Windy windows

April 11, 2016

A Piece of Mars: Here’s a tiny bit (0.69×0.39 km or 0.43×0.24 mi) of Jezero crater, one of the candidate landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover. On the bottom and left is high-standing volcanic terrain, former lava that flowed out on the crater floor. On the upper right is a much older deposit of stuff that piled up at the bottom of the lake that once, more than 3.5 billion years ago, filled the crater. Those lake deposits are so easy to erode that they’ve been worn down by the wind (see those bedforms there?) to the point that they’re now lower than the volcanic stuff. I wonder if they’ll eventually be completely covered by those ripples. (HiRISE ESP_037330_1990, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Schon, S. C., J. W. Head, and C. I. Fassett (2012), An overfilled lacustrine system and progradational delta in Jezero crater, Mars: Implications for Noachian climate, Planet. Space Sci., 67(1), 28–45, doi:10.1016/j.pss.2012.02.003.

The wind paints

April 04, 2016

A Piece of Mars: For the last few billion years, the wind has (by far) moved more sediment around on Mars than any other geological process. Not tectonics, volcanism, fluvial activity, or impact cratering (although a case has been made for glacial activity). Here’s yet one more swipe at the ground, scouring off bright dust to reveal darker terrain underneath. (HiRISE ESP_044511_2005, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Three types of windblown piles of stuff

March 28, 2016

A Piece of Mars: The wind blows different sorts of sediment in different ways. Ultimately they pile up because some oddity in nature makes one spot accumulate more sediment than other spots, allowing that windblown pile of stuff to grow. Sometimes it’s because of the wind interacting with the shape of the pile, and sometimes it’s because of the trajectories of moving grains as the wind blows them along the ground. Here’s an example of three types adjacent to each other: 1) a big dune on the left (migrating towards the right), which is covered in 2) smaller ripples, and downwind of the big dune are 3) brighter intermediate-scale piles (that are surrounded by larger and, presumably, better-developed versions of the “smaller ripples”). (HiRISE ESP_044515_1620, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dune shadows

March 16, 2016

A Piece of Mars: Normally I post in color, but sometimes you need to back out to the grayscale images to see the big awesome things. This scene is 4.6×2.6 km (2.8×1.6 mi); the conical hill is 1.4 km (0.89 mi) wide. Sand-laden wind from the right is blowing streamers of dunes around the hill, which leaves a wake that stretches downwind. Some of the luckier hills on Mars have lovely dunes scarves like this, slowly shifting over the centuries as the wind brings in more sand. (HiRISE ESP_044258_1715 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

How far does the wind blow stuff?

March 07, 2016

A Piece of Mars: Hargrave crater has an amazing array of colorful surfaces, each of which reflects a different type of rock (this scene is 480×270 m or 0.3×0.17 mi). I like the ripples sitting on top of it all; I’ve long thought that much of the material in those ripples hasn’t moved very far from where it originated. Here’s a good example of why. The ripples on the greenish surface have incorporated some local greenish material. The same is true of the tan ripples in the lower left. I’d bet most of this stuff has only moved as far as it took to make the ripple it’s in. (HiRISE ESP_044161_2005 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Sizes of worlds

February 25, 2016

A Piece of the Solar System: This isn’t my usual sort of post. But lately my 6 year old kid has been into planets, and thanks to the many informative videos on YouTube, has been reciting various names and numbers about the many worlds in the Solar System. I decided to show him just how much smaller than the Earth some of those worlds are. Here’s what I made for him. It’s not exhaustive, but it gives a good idea of just how small Pluto is relative to, say, the Moon. The scale is ~2 km/pixel. (Images attributable to NASA or ESA).

It’s a rock-eat-rock world

February 20, 2016

A Piece of Mars: This 738 x 415 m (0.46 x 0.26 mi) scene shows dark sand flowing down a channel bisected by a ~60 m (~200 ft) tall, thin “island”. That island, and many others around it (see the whole image), is what remains after windblown sand slowly carved away the rest of the rock, the same way rivers slowly cut through rock on Earth. The presence of the dark sand shows that the process is still active today. (HiRISE ESP_04400_1750, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The smallest dunes

February 08, 2016

A Piece of Mars: There are two small dome-shaped dunes in this frame (0.96×0.54 or 0.6×0.33 mi). If they got any larger, they’d form slip faces. Any smaller and they’d just be random drifts of windblown sand. Dunes form at a particular size (~125 m in this case) related to the distance it takes for sand grains to accelerate to the background wind speed. This distance is bigger on Mars than on Earth, where the smallest dunes are ~20 m across. (HiRISE ESP_044198_1480 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Remnants of erosion

January 25, 2016

A Piece of Mars: The gray area in the center of the 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) area is an erosional remnant: once, more of this area was covered by the gray stuff, but some of it has eroded away (most likely by the wind) to reveal the underlying terrain below. The wind probably blew from upper left to lower right, lifting away the finer grains and leaving behind the larger, heavier ones. Some of the larger grains have formed into ripples, that in some places may be the only sign that the overlying layer was ever there. (HiRISE ESP_043136_2020, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Springtime for sand dunes and polar ice

January 12, 2016

A Piece of Mars: This 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene shows a dark dune peeking out from under its cover of winter frost. In this picture it’s late spring, but still cold up at this latitude – it’s as far north here as the Greenland town of Qaanaaq (pop. 656 as of 2013). The CO2 frost here lingers on shady slopes until summer, preventing the dunes from migrating until it’s gone. (HiRISE ESP_043799_2570 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)