Latest News

Dust Storm Alert
Posted June 26, 2007 at 09:16 AM

Mars observer Jim Melka has submitted an image from 25 June that shows a dust storm in the Noachis region that is occluding it and Mare Serpentis (these regions are just west of Hellas Basin). You can see that images by clicking on the Images link and setting the your search values for June 25; or you can follow this direct link.

In the image, the south pole is at top and going straight down (north) from there you will see the round, orange, Hellas basin to the left (East) and another rounded orange spot down and to the right (northwest) of that—that's where the dark region Mare Serpentis ought to be. The dark area extending down and to the left (northeast) is, of course, Syrtis Major. The bluish-white band at the extreme north is, as Jim notes in his description, the North Polar Hood, a large cloud of ice that covers the northern polar cap.

This region is well known for its dust storm activity. Back when the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) was in its aerobraking phase, it imaged a dust storm in this region on 26 November 1997. It had started earlier, and by this point had expanded to quite the regional storm. By early December it had ended. Mars was too small too far away from Earth to be imaged well telescopically.

In 2001, storms from this area whirled out and around Hellas Basin beginning in June and then turned into a global storm by early July. The dust loading in the atmosphere was measured by the MGS Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (TES). Since this was all happening shortly before the 2001 opposition, many folks from the IMW community were on top of it. You can see all the MarsWatch images from June and July that were submitted. Note: those pages are huge since they contain a full month of images—it was written before I had the idea of making sub-pages and I have not gone back to "fix" it.

And again, in 2003, there were dust storms in Noachis. They were imaged by the MGS Mars Orbiter Camera on 14 August and 24 October. Once again, the MarsWatch regulars were monitoring it throughout the observing season. You can see their corresponding 13–16 August and October images for comparison. Note that due to the rotation of Mars, the areas viewed by MGS-MOC are not always facing Earth when ground-based observers can take their images.

Finally, the MGS-TES team has compiled all their dust activity data into one big (35 MB) movie running from 9 April 1999 all the way to 31 August 2004.

So now that we have a dust storm kicking around, we can only wait and see what comes of it. Clear skies!

Google Mars
Posted June 12, 2007 at 05:52 PM

I realize this is a bit old, but I ran across it again and realized that I'd never put in a link to it on any MarsWatch links pages—something I'll be fixing soon.

So it seems that Google decided to put is powerful maps interface to work on various Mars data sets. If you go to you'll see their standard map interface with the Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MGS-MOLA) elevation map. You can double-click on any region to center it, zoom in, zoom out, etc. It works just like their regular map interface, although no streets view or traffic reports.

Aside from the elevation view, you can choose the visible or infrared views instead. The visible map is made from a mosaic of images taken with the MGS Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC). The zoom capability here is great! Just check out this view of the Olympus Mons caldera or this area of Candor Chasma. Really nice stuff.

The infrared view comes from the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). While it is mostly a greyscale image (bright = more IR emission, dark = less IR emission) the brown areas are places where they have added some very high resolution mosaics.

To help you with your exploring, there are links that will highlight various features, spacecraft landing sites, and even NASA stories. About the only thing to be careful about is that when you are hand scrolling around, or you zoom out "too far", you see that the map is repeated several times—so, no, there really are not 4 Hellas Basins on Mars.

Check it out and have fun doing your own "roving" on Mars!

P.S. If you're interested, there's also a Google Moon.

Skylights on Mars
Posted May 29, 2007 at 11:08 AM

I was just getting ready to begin updates on the various spacecraft around and on Mars when this image of a hole on Mars showed up on the Astronomy Picture of the Day site. The absolute darkness of the region reminded me of those black dot bad pixels in older Viking images. However, it is rather clear that this black dot is much larger than a single pixel!

The image was taken with the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter spacecraft and it appears to be the opening to a fairly deep cave. So deep that no sunlight reaches the bottom. The cave is located on the flank of the volcano Arsia Mons, the southernmost peak on the Tharsis plateau.

It turns out, this feature is not unique. In a paper presented at the 38th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this past March by scientists from the US Geological Survey, Northern Arizona University, and Arizona State University (G. E. Cushing, T. N. Titus, J. J. Wynne, and P. R. Christensen), have identified seven such regions that may be skylight entrances to deep, underground caves on Arsia Mons.

In their paper they give several reasons for thinking these are cave entrances instead of just some really dark patch of ground. First, they are located in regions near collapse pits, indicating "open" underground regions. Second, they are not, themselves, collapse pits, or craters since they do not have visible floors/walls, nor do they have rims or the spray-pattern of debris associated with craters. Third is their thermal properties.

See, these areas have also been images by the THEMIS instrument on Mars Odyssey which can measure the temperature of the martian surface. These dark areas are warmer than shadowed areas but cooler than the surrounding ground during the day, but warmer than the surrounding ground at night implying they are underground regions that keep a relatively constant temperature, much like caves here on Earth.

What makes caves on Mars really interesting is that they would be "safe zones" for microbial life. Since the weak magnetic field and thin atmosphere allow all manner of UV and high-energy cosmic ray radiation to hit the surface, all life as we know it would be killed off rather quickly. Deep caves would block all of that radiation; and these skylights present ways into these underground caves.

Time to send in the spelunkers! Any takers?

2007 MarsWatch up and running
Posted May 18, 2007 at 08:42 AM

Welcome to the new and improved International MarsWatch! After years of running this site, I finally realized that I needed the help of someone with far better web skills than I. Fortunately, there is considerable talent in the students at Rowan's Computer Science department, and so we now have this brand new site. Oh, if you don't like the color scheme, blame me—that was all my doing. I'm not entirely sure I like it yet, but we'll see. Supposedly changing that will not be overly difficult.

The project started with trying to create a way to make image submission easier. Most images were uploaded the last time around via e-mail submissions directly to me. It was great being the first to see them, but as the season progressed, it became time consuming to handle it all. The solution designed was great, but required other changes, which required other changes…

This new site now has an automated image submission system. Members can upload images, and even include a text description should they like (it should even handle "international" characters correctly). There is still a review process I'll have to go through, just to keep any "inappropriate" images from showing up here.

The rest of the site features have been ported over including the MarsView program, basic opposition information, Mars-related links, and the Newsletter archive. Just poke around through the links in the left-hand menu.

The biggest change is this blog. Instead of trying to put out a monthly newsletter with some of the latest Mars info and news, I will be doing entries here once or twice a week. This way, the news will be more current, and I can even use this area to review some of the current Mars research from the scientific journals. I'll still try to send out a Newsletter, but it will be devoted to Mars ephemerides, and a summary of, say, the last few blog entries.

One other thing I'd like to do here is help maintain the bridge between the amateur and professional Mars observers. As the professionals get their observing time awards, it would be nice if they'd pass them along so that others can perform coordinated observations. Once again, the goal of the MarsWatch is planet-wide imaging throughout the opposition.

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