Reconnaissance Orbiter Captures Live North Pole Avalanche on Mars

Illustration for article titled Reconnaissance Orbiter Captures Live North Pole Avalanche on Mars

This amazing photo was captured late last month by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it flew over the north pole of the red planet. It shows fine-grains and chunks of ice falling down the side of a 2,300-foot-high cliff and then creating a huge dust cloud on the gentle slopes below. Click through for more detailed photos and shots of the orbiting robot that took them.

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Illustration for article titled Reconnaissance Orbiter Captures Live North Pole Avalanche on Mars

What makes the image so striking is that while we've seen the results of things like this on the planet's surface, we had yet to capture a live event like this happening.

Cameras orbiting Mars have taken thousands of images that have enabled scientists to put together pieces of Mars' geologic history. However, most of them reveal landscapes that haven't changed much in millions of years. Some images taken at different times of year do show seasonal changes from one image to the next, however, it is extremely rare to catch such a dramatic event in action. (Another, unrelated, active process that has been captured by Mars cameras are dust devils.) Observing currently active processes is often a useful tool in unlocking puzzles of the past for scientists studying the Earth. Working from primarily still images, it is harder for scientists studying Mars to rely on this tool. The HiRISE image of avalanching debris is a very rare opportunity to directly do so.

Illustration for article titled Reconnaissance Orbiter Captures Live North Pole Avalanche on Mars

This is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft launched in August of 2005 that was designed to search for water on Mars. It's got the largest camera ever used on a planetary mission on board, which is why we keep getting incredibly detailed images of the Martian surface like the ones above. It should keep its primary mission up for another few years, until 2010, before being used as a communications link for future spacecraft. [NASA via AP]

DISCUSSION

Mars' polar ice is composed of carbon dioxide, water and dust. Each cap has surface deposits of CO2 that form a cover over the cap during the martian winter, but sublimates down, exposing the layer of H2O ice and dust during the martian sumer.

Scientists estimate that 80% of the southern ice caps 3km thickness is water ice.

Mars is subjected to natural forces, just like earth is. Solar wind and direct sunlight cause erosion and evaporation, which likely caused the avalanche.

At this stage of the game, we can't send anyone to Mars to find out for sure. The radiation from the sun would tear any astronauts DNA into tatters, and they would die, a very painful death.

Hmm....maybe we could send Al Gore on a fact finding mission.....just tell him ManBearPig was spotted.....