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Mars image shows tumbled boulders near Valles Marineris

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Meditate on this massive rock garden: Several boulders once perched atop a Martian ridge have cascaded down the slope, leaving dimples in the soft sunken valley below.

The European Space Agency, which recently shared this snapshot, described the scene as “geology in motion.” The image was taken by a camera on board the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in August 2020. The result is a dramatic Ansel Adams-like landscape.

The picture captures a sliver of the Noctis Labyrinthus, “labyrinth of the night,” near the intersection with Lus Chasma of Valles Marineris — the “grand canyon” of Mars. Valles Marineris is over 2,500 miles long, wider than the United States, with depths of up to 4 miles. By comparison, Earth’s Grand Canyon reaches a maximum of one mile deep. Scientists believe the region was formed by a tectonic crack in Mars’ crust billions of years ago as the planet cooled.

CaSSIS, the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, was the camera used on the orbiter. It takes pictures of Martian surfaces that could be related to gas sources, such as volcanoes.

The photo also features wind-whipped ripples to the right of the cliff that cuts through the center of the scene. A few small craters also pockmark the terrain.

The spacecraft, a collaboration of ESA and the Russian Roscosmos space agency, began its mission in 2016. It has returned myriad images, cataloging the planet’s atmospheric gases and mapping Mars’ potential water-rich sites. Its purpose is to find evidence of methane and other signs of biological or geological activity on the red planet.

On Earth, organisms release methane during digestion, although there are other geological processes that create methane, such as the oxidation of minerals. ExoMars is also watching how seasons affect the Martian atmosphere and hunting for water vapor and ice. Its findings will help scientists pick locations for future land exploration.

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