NASA captures a new 3D view of Mars’s moon Phobos

NASA You’d think that Mars’s moon Phobos – a 13.5-mile wide lump of brownish rock full of craters – wouldn’t be the most interesting place in the Solar System to take photos. But then space exploration does tend to throw up a lot of surprises.

One of NASA’s Mars probes recently captured the above image, and it’s revealing some fascinating details about something most people probably didn’t even know existed.

The most obvious thing about Phobos is the huge crater on the bottom-right of the image. Scientists say that its slight bluish color means it hasn’t been exposed to space as long as the rest of the moon, meaning the impact that produced the crater could have been quite recent.

Wikipedia Phobos may also be home to water-ice and materials rich in carbon, which is why a Russian-Chinese mission to collect samples from Phobos is expected to launch next summer.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped the new shot of Phobos from 4000 miles away, so I’m pretty impressed that the detail’s so good. In the full size image each pixel represents 22 feet (6.8 meters), so you can zoom in quite a lot. (Click here to download the full-size image. Be warned! It’s a 20mb file, so if you’re still using ancient dial-up be prepared to wait a few hours.) It’s really cool zooming in on the thousands of craters dotting the moon, especially the ones on the edge of the Moon and on the day-night border.

Phobos and Deimos What else is so great about the new image? OK, several probes have imaged Phobos before, but because MRO took two photos you can actually see the photo in 3D if you’ve got some of those special glasses.

The image also shows landslides around the massive crater (Stickney crater), and you can see some craters in the dark region illuminated by Mars-shine. This is when light from the Sun reflects off Mars onto Phobos, and it happens with the Earth and our Moon too – take a look next time there’s a crescent Moon.

Above all, I just think it’s amazing that yet another bit our Universe is proving to be so interesting. Before I heard about this photo I just though Phobos was a boring old lump of rock, but as you can see it’s actually a pretty interesting corner of our Solar System after all.

Want to know more about the Red Planet? See the Solar System’s biggest volcano in 3D, see photos of the first ever avalanche captured on Mars, and read why radiation may prevent humans from ever visiting it.

Avalanche on Mars: NASA releases stunning images

What happens when you disturb some ice at the top of a cliff that’s half a mile tall? Check out this image for the answer:

The first Martian avalanche ever photographed | Image: NASA

And that cloud of dust in the image above isn’t just any old avalanche – it’s an avalanche on Mars! As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, there were actually four avalanches in total, all captured in the same image (click here).

So what’s in that billowing red cloud? It’s almost all a mixture of frozen carbon dioxide and Martian dust, although there may have been some huge chunks of rock in there too. If a human was standing at the bottom, chances are they’d have been completely swept away.

Talking about standing at the bottom, if you were in that unlucky position, you wouldn’t have had much time to run away because even though the cliff was over 2,300 feet high, its slopes descended at the incredibly sharp angle of angle of over 60 degrees.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter | Image: NASA The amazing thing about this image is that nearly every other image of Mars is static, because the Red Planet’s surface remains much the same for millions of years. To see this avalanche in progress required a huge amount of luck, especially as the probe that snapped it (NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) was investigating something unrelated at the time.

The big question puzzling NASA is working out why the avalanche happened. The main theory at the moment is that some of the ice melted, causing disturbances that triggered a massive avalanche – the image was taken in Martian spring, when the planet was starting to warm up after the winter.

But another interesting, though unlikely, theory is that a small asteroid crashed into the cliff, unleashing the cloud of dust and ice. Alternatively, there may have been an earthquake (sorry, Mars-quake).

Mars | Image: National GeographicWhatever caused it, this avalanche image is one of the most stunning things to come from Mars exploration in quite a while. I’m looking forward to the day when probes start having video capability – that would make stunning moments like this just extraordinary.

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