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Mars Express offers truly epic views of the largest canyon in the solar system

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The largest known canyon in the solar system is getting a stellar image in new images from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

As it swept through Martian orbit, the spacecraft captured a pair of grooves on the planet’s surface that make up part of the Mariner Valley, a canyon system known as the Grand Canyon of Mars.

The Martian Grand Canyon, however, makes the Earth version look like an ant canyon.

At 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) long and 200 miles wide, the Mariner Valley is almost 10 times longer and 20 times wider than the vast canyon system in North America. The Earth has nothing to even closely compare to the Mariner Valley, which makes this feature very interesting for planetary scientists.

Images of the segments taken by Mars Express include sections of two gorges, the Ius on the left and the Titonium on the right. Carefully examining the details of these incredible natural structures could help scientists understand the geology and geological history of Mars.

The location of the two gorges. (NASA/MGS/MOLA Science Team)

For example, Mars now appears to be tectonically extinct, its crust merged into one discrete layer containing the interior of the planet. Unlike the Earth, whose crust is divided into plates that can shift with a range of consequences.

The Mariner valleys, scientists believe, were formed even when tectonic plates really existed on Mars. Recent studies have shown that the canyon system was formed by a widening crack between the plates long ago. This makes the Marineris Valley really very interesting.

In pictures taken by Mars Express, the canyon looks relatively shallow, but the two gorges are incredibly large; the full resolution version is approximately 25 kilometers per pixel. The Ius Gorge is 840 kilometers long, and the Titonian Gorge is 805 kilometers long.

The orbiter is also equipped with 3D imaging capabilities, which show that in this image the canyon reaches its maximum depth of about 7 kilometers, five times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Topography of Ius and Tithonium ChasmataTopography of two gorges. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

There are several notable features that the images reveal in the two abysses. Inside Ius, a series of jagged mountains likely formed as the two tectonic plates parted. As it was some time ago, these mountains are pretty washed out.

Tithonium is partially colored in a darker shade at the top of the image. It may have come from the nearby volcanic region of Tarshish to the west of the gorge. From this dark sand arise paler mounds; in fact, these are mountains over 3 kilometers high.

However, the tops of the mountains were washed away by erosion. This suggests that whatever material the mountain is made of is softer and weaker than the rock around it.

However, this rock is not impenetrable. In the lower right corner of the most prominent mountain, features indicate a recent landslide of the canyon wall on the right.

annotated gorge mapAnnotated map showing various features of the gorge. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

Interestingly, Mars Express found sulfate-bearing minerals in some features of the Titonian Gorge. This has been interpreted as evidence that the gorge was once (at least partially) filled with water.

The evidence is far from conclusive, but the recent discovery of hydrogen in the gorge suggests that much of the water may be associated with minerals below the surface.

As with most sciences about Mars, it is difficult to draw conclusions with certainty as we are forced – at least for the time being – to study it remotely. But identifying areas of interest could help plan future Martian missions, both crewed and uncrewed; Sending a rover to the Marineris Valley will certainly help scientists answer some of the burning questions that have arisen.

Such images are scientifically useful because they help formulate and sometimes answer these questions. But they are also just stunningly beautiful.

Pictures published on the ESA website.

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