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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One Response

  1. I’ve seen this photo on the internet – and it’s definitely a really cool shot – but I hadn’t thought about how it was such a fluke to catch this event… thanks for pointing it out. It really is a marvel to see such detail from so far away!

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