Although we still have many mysteries to solve, Mars is brightening up for us every day, thanks to the dozen or so working robots we currently have either on the Red Planet’s surface or in its orbit.
In this latest version of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express orbiter, a unique feature of Mars’ geology is illustrated in breathtaking detail.
Resembling giant scratches on the planet’s surface, these grooves are part of a giant fault system on Mars known as the Tantalus Fossae.
Image detail aside, what’s truly staggering is the scale we’re looking at – these troughs are up to 350 meters (1,148 feet) deep and 10 kilometers wide (6.2 miles) and can extend up to 1,000 kilometers.
The image is true color, which means it depicts what humans would see if they looked at the area with their own eyes.
It’s not technically a “photo”; The image was generated from a digital terrain model of Mars and using color channels from ESA’s Mars Express High-Resolution Stereo Camera – but it presents an incredibly clear view of the vast area.
The image above shows an oblique perspective, while the photo below is a top-down view of Tantalus Fossae.
According to an ESA press release, the ground resolution of these images is around 18 meters/pixel and the images are centered at around 43°N/257°E. North is on the right.
So what are we looking at?
A fossae is a hollow or depression, and Tantalus Fossae runs along the east side of a sprawling, relatively flat Martian volcano called Alba Mons.
In terms of area, Alba Mons is the largest volcano on Mars – its volcanic outflow fields stretch for at least 1,350 km (840 miles). But at its highest point, its altitude is only 6.8 kilometers.
These pits were created when Alba Mons lifted from the planet’s crust, causing the area around it to warp and rupture.
“The Tantalus Fossae faults are an excellent example of a surface feature known as grabens,” the statement explains. “Each trench formed when two parallel faults opened, causing rock between the two to fall into the resulting void.”
A similar feature is found on the western side of Alba Mons, known as Alba Fossae.
These images are not only beautiful to look at, they can also help us better understand how the surface of Mars formed.
It is believed that these structures did not all form at the same time, but one after the other, causing some troughs to intersect.
For example, the impact crater you see in the images has grabens running through it, suggesting the crater was there first. In the top two images you can see a smaller crater to the left that sits above the troughs and is likely younger.
Mars Express has been orbiting Mars for over 18 years now. We can’t wait to see more of its unique views on our neighboring planet.