Mars' Sandy Topography Is Like a Flowing River

There is compelling evidence that the red planet’s barren surface was once covered by a series of lakes and rivers, there might even be some running water to this day. However, Mars’ seemingly arid exterior doesn’t stop the planet’s unique topography from looking like water channels down here on Earth.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of a valley on the Martian surface known as Lobo Vallis. This 63-mile (102-kilometer) geological formation is located on Mars’ northern hemisphere and looks similar to babbling rivers flowing over smooth stones down here on Earth. The resemblance is so striking that it caused astronomers to name this swath of land after a river in the Ivory Coast.

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This aquatic appearance is completely caused by streaks of sand and dark dunes that have sunk into low-lying areas that were carved out by water that once flowed across the planet’s surface. These sandy ripples and mounds were specifically caused by strong gusts of winds blowing from the top of the image downward.

Parts of Mars’ surface is known to be covered in a layer of sand that can often times completely changes how certain areas of the planet look from above. The particles covering this region of the planet are made completely out of basalt, a common volcanic rock that is found all over Earth’s surface as well on the Moon and Venus.

Understanding how the red planet’s topography changes over time is a crucial step in grasping how the planet formed, to begin with. That is why NASA will be launching the extremely-sterile InSight Mars lander on May 5. However, instead of looking for changes on the surface, this probe will be listening for vibrations deep within the Martian crust.

Map of Mars. Red dot is approximately where Lobo Vallis is located.

If all goes according to plan astronomers will receive a constant flow of seismographic data from the planet as well as high-altitude images from the Reconnaissance Orbiter. This wide array of information will give researchers a more detailed idea of the interworkings of Mars’ geology, which will be invaluable to aerospace companies as they plan on sending humans to the red planet in the future.

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