NASA Mars Orbiter Spots Caves on Red Planet

Mars-pits-larger_30636_600x450 Huge pits or caves pumcture a bright, dusty plain near the Martian volcano Ascraeus Mons in an image  taken between October 1 and November 1 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Caves and other underground structures, including lava tubes, and canyon overhangs would be potentially useful for manned missions to the Red Planet, providing shielding from both the elements and intense radiation that a Mars mission would expose astronauts to. They might also offer access to minerals, gases, ices, and any subterranean life that the crew of such a mission would probably be searching for.

Released in December, the image is among a series of new views snapped by MRO's HiRISE camera that show intriguing geological features on Mars. Each image covers a strip of Martian ground 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) wide and can reveal a detail about as small as a desk—and so far no sign of Star Wars monsters.


MRO's sister orbiter, Mars Odyssey, first noticed the two deep pits—which are about 590 feet (180 meters) and 1,017 feet (310 meters), —a year earlier using its infrared camera, THEMIS.

"When compared to the surrounding surface, the dark interiors of the holes gave off heat at night but were cool by day," said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator on the HiRISE camera. "So we then decided to target these with MRO because this thermal information may be evidence for these being caves—but the jury is still out on that."

The MRO has been studying Mars since 2006, beaming back more data than all other past and current missions to the planet combined.

Mars-pits-overview_30639_600x450

The Daily Galaxy

Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily