The Sciences

Spectacular sand pit found on Mars!

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitAug 18, 2011 4:50 PM


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Check. This. Out: a perfectly-formed collapse pit on Mars that leads to an underground cavern!

Amazing! [Click to barsoomenate.] This was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in July 2011. See the hole in the bottom? You can tell from the lighting that this is an underground opening to a cavern -- a skylight. Quite a few of these have been found on Mars, actually. We see them on Earth and even on the Moon. Given the angle of the shadows, the vertical distance from the bottom of the pit to the floor of the cavern is about 20 meters (65 feet). Watch your step! Here's how we think skylights like this form. In the distant past, Mars was geologically active. Rivers of lava ran across the surface. If the surface of the lava hardens it can form a roof, allowing the lava underneath to continue flowing; these are called lava tubes and there are bazillions of them in Hawaii, for example. Eventually, the source of the lava chokes off and the lava flows away, leaving the empty tube underground. If the roof is thin in one spot it can collapse. Sometimes that just leaves a hole, but apparently in this case it was under a sand field. Some of the sand must have fallen into the chamber below and eventually blown away, leaving the pit and the hole. The pit is located not too far from Pavonis Mons, a known (long-dead) Martian volcano. The hole is about 35 meters (115 feet) across, so the pit is about 175 meters (nearly 600 feet) across the rim. I love how it sits in an otherwise nearly featureless sand field; the contrast is beautiful. In the high-res image you can see boulders perched on the pit wall, having rolled part of the way down as well. The inside of the pit has lines and furrows that are instantly recognizable to anyone who has tried to dig a hole at the beach and had sand continually flow down from the rim. It would be incredible to see something like this up close. It's possible eventually someone will: such lava tubes would make good homes for future Mars explorers; they'd be protected from sand storms, temperature swings, and solar radiation (which is worse than for us on Earth because Mars doesn't have a strong magnetic field to protect it). ... but you couldn't pay me enough to go inside one of those. I have no desire to be slowly digested over ten thousand years.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. Tip o' the light saber to reddit.

Related posts: - More Mars caves found - There's a hole in the Moon! - Spelunking the lunar landscape - Martian dunes under the microscope

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