Phoenicis Lacus Quadrangle - Dark Slope Streaks

Dark Slope Streaks

A picture below shows dark streaks on the slopes of Aganippe Fossa. Such streaks are common on Mars. They occur on steep slopes of craters, troughs, and valleys. The streaks are dark at first. They get lighter with age. Sometimes they start in a tiny spot, then spread out and go for hundreds of meters. They have been seen to travel around obstacles, like boulders. It is believed that they are avalanches of bright dust that expose a darker underlying layer. However, several ideas have been advanced to explain them. Some involve water or even the growth of organisms. The streaks appear in areas covered with dust. Much of the Martian surface is covered with dust. Fine dust settles out of the atmosphere covering everything. We know a lot about this dust because the solar panels of the Mars Rovers get covered with dust, thus reducing the electrical energy. The power of the Rovers has been restored many times by the wind, in the form of dust devils, cleaning the panels and boosting the power. So, we know that dust settles from the atmosphere then returns over and over. Dust storms are frequent, especially when the spring season begins in the southern hemisphere. At that time, Mars is 40% closer to the sun. The orbit of Mars is much more elliptical then the Earth's. That is the difference between the farthest point from the sun and the closest point to the sun is very great for Mars, but only a slight amount for the Earth. Also, every few years, the entire planet is engulfed in global dust storms. When NASA's Mariner 9 craft arrived there, nothing could be seen through the dust storm. Other global dust storms have also been observed, since that time.

  • Aganippe Fossa as seen by HiRISE. Full size image shows layers and streaks.

Research, published in January 2012 in Icarus, found that dark streaks were initiated by airblasts from meteorites traveling at supersonic speeds. The team of scientists was led by Kaylan Burleigh, an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. After counting some 65,000 dark streaks around the impact site of a group of 5 new craters, patterns emerged. The number of streaks was greatest closer to the impact site. So, the impact somehow probably caused the streaks. Also, the distribution of the streaks formed a pattern with two wings extending from the impact site. The curved wings resembled scimitars, curved knives. This pattern suggests that an interaction of airblasts from the group of meteorites shook dust loose enough to start dust avalanches that formed the many dark streaks. At first it was thought that the shaking of the ground from the impact caused the dust avalanches, but if that was the case the dark streaks would have been arranged symmetrically around the impacts, rather than being concentrated into curved shapes.

The crater cluster lies near the equator 510 miles) south of Olympus Mons, on a type of terrain called the Medusae Fossae formation. The formation is coated with dust and contains wind-carved ridges called yardangs. These yardangs have steep slopes thickly covered with dust, so when the sonic boom of the airblast arrived from the impacts dust started to move down the slope. Using photos from Mars Global Surveyor and HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have found about 20 new impacts each year on Mars. Because the spacecraft have been imaging Mars almost continuously for a span of 14 years, newer images with suspected recent craters can be compared to older images to determine when the craters were formed. Since the craters were spotted in a HiRISE image from February 2006, but were not present in a Mars Global Surveyor image taken in May 2004, the impact occurred in that time frame.

The largest crater in the cluster is about 22 meters (72 feet) in diameter with close to the area of a basketball court. As the meteorite traveled through the Martian atmosphere it probably broke up; hence a tight group of impact craters resulted. Dark slope streaks have been seen for some time, and many ideas have been advanced to explain them. This research may have finally solved this mystery.

  • Image indicates crater cluster and curved lines formed by airblast from meteorites. Meteorites caused airblast which caused dust avalanches on steep slopes. Image is from HiRISE.

  • Close up of previous image along light/dark boundary. Dark line in middle of image shows border between light and dark area of curved lines. Green arrows show high areas of ridges. Loose dust moved down steep slopes when it felt the airblast from meteorite strikes. Image is from HiRISE.

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