Pit-chains in Tharsis
Science & Exploration

The pit-chains of Mars – a possible place for life?

05/04/2012 3831 views 13 likes
ESA / Science & Exploration / Space Science / Mars Express

The latest images released from ESA’s Mars Express reveal a series of ‘pit-chains’ on the flanks of one of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System. Depending on their origin, they might be tempting targets in the search for microbial life on the Red Planet.

The images, taken on 22 June 2011, cover Tractus Catena in the Arcadia quadrangle, part of the vast Tharsis region on Mars. This region boasts a number of huge volcanoes, including the three collectively known as Tharsis Montes. To their north sits Alba Mons, also known as Alba Patera, one of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System by area and volume.

Tractus Catena sits on its southeastern flank of Alba Mons and the pit-chains in that region are a series of circular depressions that formed along fracture points in the martian crust.

Pit-chains can have a volcanic origin. Lava streaming from a volcano solidifies on the surface, leaving a molten tube of lava running below.

Tractus Catena region
Tractus Catena region

Once volcanic activity ceases, the tube empties, leaving behind a subterranean cavity. Over time, parts of the roof over the cavity may collapse, leaving circular depressions on the surface. On Earth, recent examples can be seen on the flanks of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, while on the Moon, Hadley Rille, visited by Apollo 15 in 1971, is believed to have formed in the same way billions of years ago.

Pit-chains at high resolution
Pit-chains at high resolution

Pit-chains can also be caused by strains in the Martian crust, which translates into a series of parallel elongated depressions known as grabens, in which pits can also form.

But the most dramatic scenario involves groundwater. On Earth, there are clear examples of similar structures in ‘Karst’ regions – after the German name for a region extending from Slovenia to Italy, where this phenomenon was first studied.

Some of Earth’s most famous examples are the network of ‘cenotes’ on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. These deep natural pits form when the surface limestone rocks collapse, exposing the groundwater underneath.

This origin is the most interesting in the context of the search for microbial life on Mars. If there are any cave-like structures associated with the pits, microorganisms could have survived, protected from the harsh surface environment.

Map of the pit-chains
Map of the pit-chains

Mars landers have measured surface radiation around 250 times higher than that found on the Earth, and more than double that experienced by astronauts on board the International Space Station. Any caves associated with the pit-chains may in future provide a possible refuge for astronauts from the harsh surface radiation.

However they formed, these pit-chains show again just how similar many of the geological processes on Mars are to those on the Earth, and provide interesting targets for future missions.

Tractus Catena pit-chains
Tractus Catena pit-chains
Pit-chains in 3D
Pit-chains in 3D

Related Links

Pit-chains in Tharsis
Science & Exploration

The pit-chains of Mars – a possible place for life?

05/04/2012 3831 views 13 likes
Open item
Ancient northern ocean on Mars
Science & Exploration

ESA's Mars Express radar gives strong evidence for former M…

06/02/2012 6435 views 7 likes
Open item
Part of Syrtis Major
Science & Exploration

Mars Express reveals wind-blown deposits on Mars

03/02/2012 1907 views 2 likes
Open item
Phlegra Montes on Mars
Science & Exploration

Mountains and buried ice on Mars

02/12/2011 3025 views 7 likes
Open item
Battered volcano Tharsis Tholus
Science & Exploration

Battered Tharsis Tholus volcano on Mars

08/11/2011 3041 views 2 likes
Open item
Oraibi crater in Ares Vallis
Science & Exploration

Mars Express observes clusters of recent craters in Ares Va…

07/10/2011 1755 views 3 likes
Open item
Holden and Eberswalde craters
Science & Exploration

Rare martian lake delta spotted by Mars Express

02/09/2011 4277 views 17 likes
Open item
Mars’ northern polar regions
Science & Exploration

Mars’ northern polar regions in transition

05/08/2011 3639 views 4 likes
Open item
Science & Exploration

Phobos slips past Jupiter

17/06/2011 4502 views 13 likes
Open item
Springtime at Mars’ south pole
Science & Exploration

Springtime at Mars’ south pole

07/06/2011 3269 views 5 likes
Open item
Deep fractures on Mars
Science & Exploration

Mars Express sees deep fractures on Mars

06/05/2011 2620 views 2 likes
Open item
Neighbouring volcanoes on Mars
Science & Exploration

Neighbouring volcanoes on Mars

01/04/2011 2455 views 3 likes
Open item
Elongated crater on Mars
Science & Exploration

The scars of impacts on Mars

04/03/2011 3308 views 2 likes
Open item
Arabia Terra on Mars
Science & Exploration

Mars Express puts craters on a pedestal

04/02/2011 2380 views 1 likes
Open item
Stereo-1 channel image of Phobos
Science & Exploration

Mars Express close flybys of martian moon Phobos

21/01/2011 6876 views 7 likes
Open item
Schiaparelli on Mars
Science & Exploration

Wind and water have shaped Schiaparelli on Mars

10/12/2010 4719 views 9 likes
Open item
Phoenicis Lacus on Mars
Science & Exploration

Light and dark in the Phoenix Lake

12/11/2010 1898 views 3 likes
Open item
Melas Chasma on Mars
Science & Exploration

Mars: how low can you go?

08/10/2010 2323 views 4 likes
Open item
Orcus Patera on Mars
Science & Exploration

Mars’s mysterious elongated crater

27/08/2010 5978 views 16 likes
Open item
Magellan Crater on Mars
Science & Exploration

Rocky mounds and a plateau on Mars

28/06/2010 2086 views 4 likes
Open item
Science & Exploration

Wet era on early Mars was global

25/06/2010 2053 views 3 likes
Open item
Volcanic ash deposits in Meridiani Planum
Science & Exploration

Volcanic ash in Meridiani Planum

12/05/2010 2810 views 7 likes
Open item
Part of the Sirenum Fossae region in the Southern Highlands of Mars.
Science & Exploration

Craters young and old in Sirenum Fossae

03/02/2010 2061 views 2 likes
Open item
Close to Ma'adim Vallis
Science & Exploration

Craters, lava flows and tectonic features near Ma'adim Vall…

24/07/2009 2275 views 2 likes
Open item
Impacts and floods
Science & Exploration

Craters and channels in Hephaestus Fossae

05/06/2009 3491 views 6 likes
Open item
Ariadnes Colles, nadir view
Science & Exploration

Chaotic terrain in Ariadnes Colles

24/04/2009 1683 views 6 likes
Open item
Rupes Tenuis
Science & Exploration

Ice-covered martian North Pole

06/03/2009 2080 views 2 likes
Open item
Euminedes Dorsum
Science & Exploration

The Euminedes Dorsum mountains on Mars

28/11/2008 1656 views 3 likes
Open item
Mangala Fossae
Science & Exploration

Lava deposits in Mangala Fossae

26/09/2008 1918 views 5 likes
Open item

Related Links