Despite SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic racing to be the first to bring tourists to Mars, NASA’s latest photos depict a volatile Martian landscape that might not be ready for a tourist season. Such is the case with the latest photo from the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reveals a region in the red planet’s south pole that looks to be covered with spiders.
On Thursday NASA released photos captures by the Reconnaissance Orbiter on May 13 of spider formations in the normally ice-capped region of Mars’ south pole. This photo was released just weeks after the Orbiter captured the planet’s mesmerizing blue sand dunes as part of its mission to understand Mars’ geological diversity. The cobalt blue sand dunes could make someone rethink the “red planet” moniker, but the south pole spider fleet is enough to make someone rethink Elon Musk’s proposed colony.
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Luckily, these “spiders” aren’t actually organic lifeforms, but are called “araneiform terrain.” It’s a radiating mound that forms when carbon dioxide ice heats up below the surface, causing to change from a solid to gas, much like dry ice here on Earth. Thanks to the sun’s warmth each spring, the carbon dioxide gas trapped below the surface before it builds enough pressure to break through the ice.
Once the gas is released into the atmosphere, darker dust can be deposited around the vent or transported by winds to produce streaks. The loss of the sublimated carbon dioxide leaves behind heaps of dust mounds that look like giant arachnids crawling along the landscape. And there’s nothing like a warm spring day on Mars to help the spider-mounds bloom.
The Martian spiders were captured on film thanks to the Orbiter’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. The camera, which is operated by University of Arizona, Tucson, has helped NASA decrease the noise and bad pixelation of earlier images by employing a longer warm-up time and is expected to continue returning images that help scientists understand Mars’ diverse and divergent geological properties.
With the commercial race to Mars still on, it’s important to know what to expect before tourist board a spacecraft from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, or SpaceX, all of which promise to offer trips to the red planet in the near future. Between its blue dunes, violent dust storms, and now blooming spiders, even if the planet cannot sustain organic life, it can at least sustain trippy nightmares.