News From Mars: New Impact Crater and Landslides

Originally posted on Stories by Williams:

Mars_impact_craterThe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in operation around Mars since March of 2006, has provided ongoing observation of the planet. Because of this, scientists and astronomers have been able to keep track of changes on the surface ever since. This new impact crater, which was formed by a recent meteor impact, is just the latest example.

The image was taken by the Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Nov. 19, 2013. Since that time, NASA scientists have been working to enhance the image and rendering it in false color so the fresh crater appears.The resulting image shows the stunning 30-meter-wide crater with a rayed blast zone and far-flung secondary material surrounding.

Mars_Reconnaissance_OrbiterResearchers used HiRISE to examine this site because the orbiter’s Context Camera had revealed a change in appearance here between observations in July 2010 and May 2012, when the impact was thought to have…

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What is planetary seismology?

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EPSC2013 – Day four

End of day four and everyone is starting to flag. Coffee breaks seem to be getting longer and sessions don’t feel so full. I’ve bobbed out a touch early to recuperate ready for the final push tomorrow. I suppose the conference dinner last night didn’t help either…

The boat was exciting (certainly for the first half an hour, beyond which point it made little difference), and the best part was the raising of the Tower Bridge for the passage of our vessel; pictures below as promised!



The dinner itself was nice, though a little eclectic. It turned out to be an every-man-for-himself buffet service with a bizarre mix of foods: a bit of chicken, a slice of (raw – I didn’t touch it in the end) beef, couscous salad, mini quiche and bread. Et voila:

Perhaps four hours aboard was a little long with no means of escape, but actually it was a great format for a conference dinner and it was really enjoyable.

Needless to say, we were all a little tired this morning, but it was still disappointing when the speaker I was most looking forward to seeing in the morning was a no-show. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of interesting work discussed.

One of the highlights was the session on space weather. This kind of weather involves no clouds or rain or wind that you would feel, but storms of charged particles from the sun streaming across space to interact with whatever gets in its way! There are several different types of space weather, these are:

  • Coronal mass ejections
  • Solar flares
  • Solar energetic particles
  • Magnetic co-rotating interactions
  • These phenomena cause what we call solar storms when they interact with the magnetic field on a planet. When this happens it produces the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, more commonly known as the Northern and Southern lights. It is only thanks to our magnetic field that these storms don’t do us more damage. Without it, we would be exposed to deadly radiation and our satellites and power plants could all fail. In fact, it is commonly agreed that life could not survive on a planet that did not have a magnetic field. On the other hand, this solar wind presents an interesting opportunity for space travel. It can be harnessed to push huge ‘solar sails’, currently being developed by NASA around the solar system – opening up orbits that have so far been inaccessible to our instruments. Below is an excellent video clip showing some incredible space weather.

    If you can’t see the video, click here.

    W then had some cool talks about the seasons on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Titan has rain and lakes and rivers at its surface, despite the fact that temperatures are significantly below the freezing point of water. This is because its rivers and lakes and seas are made from liquid methane – the same stuff we use as fuel on Earth! It also has seasons that are caused by the tilt of the axis on which the planet spins. In exactly the same way that the earth is tilted on its axis, so that sometimes the northern hemisphere leans towards the sun (we call that summer) and sometimes it leans away (winter), Titan wobbles around so that it too has a summer and winter season. All sorts of interesting things happen between the seasons on Titan… Somewhat obviously, the temperature is higher in summer and this causes low pressure as air rises and the gaseous methane in the atmosphere condenses to form large clouds over the pole, which then rain. Different gasses also move around in the atmosphere as the direction of rising and sinking air reverses. In summer when the warm air rises, it brings gasses higher into the atmosphere which then undergo photochemical (reactions with sunlight), that they don’t get lower down. Conversely, in winter when the air sinks, the gasses move down in the atmosphere where wind causes turbulent mixing, potentially down to the surface of the moon. If you are interested in reading a bit more, check out this link to NASA’s website.

    Later on tonight there is a public engagement event. Why not come and get involved! It is the Space “show-off” cabaret evening, where scientists come to discuss their work, tell crappy stand-up jokes and generally have a good time. It is tonight (Thursday the 12th Sept) at 7:30pm at the Bloomsbury Theatre, UCL, Gordon St, London. Tickets are £10 or £7 concession. Come along!

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    EPSC2013 – day three

    Well, the poster session last night turned out to be extremely useful. It was an hour and a half session and the idea is to wander around a hall filled with posters which summarise the work various scientists have been undertaking. Each scientist stands by their poster for a time so that people walking around can ask them about their work and methods. This is often a great forum to get feedback on the work you have been doing and collect suggestions for improvements or to foster potential collaborations. I was able to meet with another member of the InSight team to discuss some work that we could collaborate on together.

    Today, the focus of the terrestrial planet session has been new science from Mercury. I will detail the highlights from both this and the session on planetary magnetospheres, but other science discussed today included imaging of exoplanets (planets observed outside of our solar system), development of technology for future missions, the results of the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt, including Vesta and Ceres, and habitability of other planetary bodies within the solar system.


    I learned lots about Mercury today that I didn’t previously know. It turns out that Mercury has a huge core relative to its total size – perhaps a product of a huge impact that blew away much of the lighter mantle material, leaving behind the iron core, or perhaps by spallation of the surface over solar-system timescales by the solar wind. It has two main surface types, rough plains and smooth plains, which roughly correspond to the age of the surface and suggest a catastrophic resurfacing event around equatorial regions, relatively recently in Mercury’s history.

    Mercury also has an extremely interesting magnetic field that changes on extremely short timescales, on the order of a couple of minutes. It has bow shocks, sub-sonic solar wind, plasma sheaths and other such cool-sounding features (see questionable quality sketch I made below). The Messenger space craft is currently orbiting Mercury and has the ability to measure the properties of the magnetic field. Its orbit is heavily inclined so that it passes through the various layers of the magnetosphere.


    In other magnetic news, it is now being explored how protoplanets initiate a liquid core dynamo strong enough to induce a magnetic field. It has been thought in the past that you need to be crystallising (freezing) the liquid iron outer core into a solid inner core to drive the convection of the liquid iron to produce the magnetic field. However, evidence has been found that suggests that the Earth had a magnetic field before it was cool enough to begin solidifying the inner core. Similarly, it is thought possible that Mars has a weak dynamo, even though it is possibly too small to have a liquid core at all. Is it then a remnant of an older field? We probably won’t know more until we have a magnetometer on the surface of Mars. At the moment we only have data from Mars Global Surveyor, which measured the magnetic field from orbit.


    I think that is probably enough science for one day. Other activities happening today include a careers ‘speed-dating’ session, where representatives from relevant industries, academic institutions and students mingle and try to get a good deal. There is also a public outreach event of night sky observation in Regents Park, central London (I strongly suggest you go along, see link for details). Finally, we have the conference dinner aboard the Dixie Queen, hopefully, photos to follow tomorrow!

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    EPSC2013 – Day two

    We are back for day two of EPSC2013!

    So… Talk done, but the science is far from over! Still to come is the poster session which looks great. There are about a couple of thousand posters or so to browse. Luckily there is plenty of free wine.

    Some of the science highlights from today include:

  • Saturn’s Aurora – Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Cassini probe were used to observe and analyse Saturn’s “Northern Lights”. These observations were part of a campaign and included images of quiet time and times of intense solar storms. The aurora themselves are made when charged particles from the sun interact with the magnetic field lines of a planet. One interesting thing that I learned is that the lights are always more intense on the dawn side of the planet. The night-sky tends to have much dimmer aurorae, contrary to what you expect from observing the Northern Lights at night time on the Earth. However, this makes more physical sense, since the dawn and day side of the planet face towards the sun, which is where the charged particles are coming from.
  • 20130910-180239.jpg

  • Fireballs and meteorite explosions! – This was set to be one of the highlights of the conference (closely following the SPACE DISASTERS session) however, as it turned out almost every talk in the session was canceled. A closer inspection of the programme showed that all of the cancelled talkies belonged to the same speaker (who, incidentally, should also have been chairing the session), who, of course, was not in attendance. Such a shame!
  • Evidence of glacial and periglacial features – There seems to be lots of evidence of these landforms on Mars; it’s not surprising, I suppose, considering how cold the planet is. However, the interesting part is that the landforms are found a lot further south than has previously been discovered – down to around 30degrees latitude. These features include pingos, polygonal terrain, eskers
  • I’m off now to take advantage of the poster session. See you tomorrow!


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    EPSC2013 – Day one

    So here I am at the European Planetary Science Congress, 2013. The conference this year takes place in University College, London. It is the sixth such conference held in Europe for the growing planetary science community to be found on this side of the pond. The programme put together by the committee is extremely varied and exciting. Over the next five days, I hope to bring to you news and updates from the conference: interesting science, big names in the planetary community and breaking news from the various missions active at the moment.

    UCL London

    This morning, we were welcomed to the conference by the president of the current EPSC committee and the president and provost of UCL. It was interesting to hear that the face of European planetary science seems to be changing. The organisation Europlanet is moving into a more open member-driven network and is more dedicated than ever to reaching out to the amateur community and the public at large. To this end, they award, each year, the ‘Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement with Planetary Science’. This year’s winner was Jay Tate for his work on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and the asteroid and comet impact hazard. Basically, Jay is the guy that monitors the approach of the end of the world by catastrophic impact!

    Well done Jay Tate

    Other outreach events organised throughout the conference include the FESTIVAL OF THE PLANETS! The programme for this festival includes night-sky observation with trained astronomers in Regent’s Park, exhibitions at the Royal Maritime Museum Observatory in Greenwich and other great things for all the family. For more festival events, see here.

    Science highlights from today include:

    • How does dust get into the Martian atmosphere? (By the saltation, or bouncing, of  larger particles which collide and break into smaller ones, thus puffing dust up into the air) – F. Daerden et al
    • Measuring the number and frequency of dust devils – Mars’s super tornadoes! – R.D. Lorenz.
    • Carbon Dioxide Snowfall! Apparently it takes two Martian days for CO2 ice clouds to fall to the surface from 25km.- T. Kurosawa et al.

    Tune in tomorrow or follow me on Twitter for more regular updates throughout the conference. Tomorrow is my talk in the Mars surface processes session… I’ll let you know how it goes!

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    The Cerberus Fossae

    I’ve just found this lovely video about the Cerberus Fossae – the fault system on Mars that I’ve done lots of work on. Check it out!


    If you want to play around with GoogleMars yourself, click here. Below I’ve listed some interesting things you could search for:

    • Cerberus Fossae (#1 of course!)
    • Olympus Mons (Biggest volcano in the solar system)
    • Hellas Basin (Huge impact crater)
    • Alba Patera (check out the fault systems)
    • Sharonov (see that thing that looks like a huge river system… it was!)

    Enjoy exploring!

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