Breathtaking Images From Orbit Show Mars’ “Grand Canyon”

In the latest image release from ESA’s Mars Express, we get a unique look at two ruptures in the martian crust that are part of the mighty Valles Marineris canyon system.

Since 2003, Mars Express has been orbiting the Red Planet, imaging its surface, mapping its minerals, identifying that planet’s tenuous atmosphere and mapping its circulation, probing beneath its crust, and investigating all the different phenomena associated with Mars.

Similar to the Grand Canyon on Earth, the Valles Marineris stretches across Mars, except that it is minute by comparison. Almost ten times longer, twenty times wider, and five times deeper than the Grand Canyon, Valles Marineris is nearly four thousand kilometers long, 200 kilometers wide, and up to seven kilometers deep.

In this image, you can see the Ius and Tithonium Chasmata in 3D, which are part of the Valles Marineris canyon structure on Mars. The image was created using the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) aboard ESA's Mars Express on April 21, 2022. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.
In this image, you can see the Ius and Tithonium Chasmata in 3D, which are part of the Valles Marineris canyon structure on Mars. The image was created using the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) aboard ESA’s Mars Express on April 21, 2022. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

In terms of size, it spans the distance from the northern tip of Norway to the southern tip of Sicily. This makes it the largest canyon system in the Solar System.

One more difference is that, while the Grand Canyon formed from the eroding power of the Colorado River, Valles Marineris formed as tectonic plates drifted apart.

Two trenches (or chasma) are shown in the image. They are located in the western part of Valles Marineris. Ius Chasma (left) is 840 kilometers long; Tithonium Chasma (right) is 805 kilometers long.

Mars' Valles Marineris canyon structure is shown in this image from ESA's Mars Express. NASA/MGS/MOLA Science Team.
Mars’ Valles Marineris canyon structure is shown in this image from ESA’s Mars Express. NASA/MGS/MOLA Science Team.

Despite these high-resolution images showing incredible surface detail, it is only when we look at the elevation maps (see above) that we realize just how deep these chasmata can be – up to 7 km deep!

Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps, would seem dwarfed inside Tithonium Chasma at 4809 m.

A patch of dark sand rises from Tithonium Chasma, bringing color contrast to the image. A nearby volcanic region called Tharsis may have supplied this sand.

A digital terrain model and the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the Mars Express were used to create this oblique perspective view of Tithonium Chasmata, which is part of Mars' Valles Marineris canyon structure. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.
A digital terrain model and the nadir and color channels of the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on the Mars Express were used to create this oblique perspective view of Tithonium Chasmata, which is part of Mars’ Valles Marineris canyon structure. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Two light-toned mounds are next to the dark sand dunes (the upper border partially cuts off one).

As they rise over 3000 meters high, these ‘mounds’ seem more like mountains. Mars’ strong winds have greatly eroded the surfaces of these rocks, suggesting that they are made from a weaker material than the nearby rocks.

A digital terrain model and the nadir and colour channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the Mars Express were used to create this oblique perspective view of Tithonium Chasmata, which is part of Mars' Valles Marineris canyon structure. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.
A digital terrain model and the nadir and color channels of the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on the Mars Express were used to create this oblique perspective view of Tithonium Chasmata, which is part of Mars’ Valles Marineris canyon structure. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

The second perspective view shows a series of smaller bumps between the two mounds. This region is known to contain water-bearing sulfate minerals found by Mars Express.

The bumps might be caused by liquid evaporating from the chasma, although this theory is still controversial.

In the second perspective view, we see parallel lines and debris piles to the lower right of the mound that we can see in full. These are indications of a recent landslide. A large purple area can also be seen in the topography image below.

Mars' Valles Marineris canyon structure is represented in this colour-coded topographic image. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.
Mars’ Valles Marineris canyon structure is represented in this color-coded topographic image. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

This landslide was caused by the collapse of the canyon wall on the right, and it may have happened relatively recently since it wasn’t severely eroded.

It is equally fascinating to explore the gnarly floor of Ius Chasma. In the process of tectonic plate separation, jagged triangles of rock appear to have formed that look like rows of shark teeth. This rock formation has collapsed and eroded over time.

These new images were taken with the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), which reveals many of Mars’ diverse surface features, including wind-sculpted ridges, impact craters, river channels, and lava pools.


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