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"Ponytails" of dust stuck on the wall of Melas Chasma. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Nov 07, 2007
Dust Braids in Melas Chasma

The edges of cliffs and canyons on Earth often display talus slopes caused by erosion. But they start small and become wide, not the other way around!

Melas Chasma is part of the gigantic Valles Marineris complex that scars the face of Mars. It is a tributary canyon with different minerals arranged in what appear to be sedimentary layers. Because of its unique geological features, Melas Chasma has been tapped as a possible landing site for NASA's future Mars Exploration Rover (MER) projects.

The terrain within Melas Chasma is thought to result from water and wind erosion acting on the stone for billions of years. According to the prevailing theories about Mars, the 4000 kilometer-long trench of Valles Marineris appeared when the Martian crust was stretched by catastrophic volcanism early in its history.

Something caused the interior of Mars to expand and cool, leaving behind a series of giant cracks along the equator. Later, during the "wet phase" in its evolution, water flowed through the channels, eroding the tributaries and compacting the sedimentary layers. After eons of time, Mars somehow lost its water and turned into the lifeless, blasted wasteland that we see today.

Mars presently has an atmosphere that is less than 1% of Earth's atmospheric density at sea level. It is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, although nitrogen and argon make up about 3%, with trace elements less than 1/10%. The temperatures on Mars vary with a maximum of 20 C (68 F) and a minimum of -140 C (-220 F). The atmosphere is so thin that blowing winds exert almost no pressure on rovers that are traversing the surface.

Despite a dust storm several months ago that obscured an entire hemisphere, the MER B Opportunity reported light pressure increases and a small amount of sand accumulation. It survived the storm quite well and continues to return images.

This lends credence to the idea of "blowing" dust on Mars really being caused by electrostatic discharges from the polar regions. "Electric dust devils" look like they are carrying dust with them thousands of meters into the sky and hundreds of kilometers through the landscape.

In previous Thunderbolts Picture of the Day articles about the Martian surface, we identified anomalous features that are not easily explained by wind erosion, even if there were strong winds on Mars. Around Victoria crater's rim and throughout the ocean of hematite ripples covering Meridiani Planum are structures that can be more readily explained if electricity was involved in their creation. The Martian geography could have been transformed into the contours that look so mysterious to conventional scientists by electric current flowing through the silicon dioxide rock and iron ores that make up the planet's crust.

A case-in-point is the wall of Melas Chasma shown at the top of the page. It is part of a larger image that the Mars Orbital Camera (MOC) took during a flyover in 1999. The "dust braids" are the strangest of the formations, appearing to be long tendrils that overlap one another. Some of the braids have filaments of white stone crossing over them at right angles. In other cases, the dark iron oxide is visible underneath the wavering white stone formations. It looks as if the iron oxide dust was drawn together into long cords, bunched into a braded shape and then pulled beneath the silicon dioxide rock.

The larger braids appear to have been "parted" and then twisted like thick locks of hair. They then fall away into thinner and thinner strands until they become branching terminations like lightning bolts. The lightning bolt channels - Lichtenberg figures - merge into the black ripples of stone further down and away from the braids. The Lichtenberg figures are the key to how these braided ropes of iron oxide were formed: they are the trackways of electric discharges that gathered the dust and stones into alignment with their magnetic fields and glassified them permanently into place on the wall of the chasm.

Scientists have been calling the ripples that form below the fingers of the Lichtenberg figures "dunes" and see their formation on Mars to be much the same as on Earth. Mountains wear down into sands that are then blown around by winds until they accumulate into deposits that bear distinctive characteristics. One of the biggest problems with the "dune" theory in this case is that the bottom of Melas Chasma is solid rock - the black ripples are not sand deposits at all.

There is a "dust devil" blowing through Melas Chasma in the large MOC image. The mushroom-shaped, glowing top is well contrasted with the dark background, so we can say for certain that it is what NASA scientists have called a "dust devil" and not a cloud of some kind. Also, its shadow is visible to the left of the glowing puff. If this is a rapidly rotating windstorm, hundreds of meters high, traveling through a field of dunes made up of sand and dust, then why is it leaving no track as it goes? There is no trace of its path visible anywhere. The explanation must be that the "dunes" are not sand and dust and the "dust devil" is not a whirling wind, but is an ion storm - a rotating electrical vortex. If electricity is considered a viable option for explaining the features on Mars rather than wind and water, then more sense will be made of the "mysteries" that defy convention.

By Stephen Smith

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David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
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