Crater Photos Show Off Dynamic Martian Winds

New pictures from Mars show dust blowing out of a craterin the same area where NASA's rover Opportunity patrols, providing researcherswith new data about Mars' dynamic weather system.

Taken by Europe's Mars Express ?probe in 2005 andreleased this week, the new Mars pictures show a 31-mile-wide (50-km) craterwith black sand blowing out of the cavity. Mars Express used its HighResolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) to snap the latest red planet photos.

By looking at the dust trail, scientists can calculatethe direction of the wind, which contributes to a better understanding of Martianweather at large, said Michael Wyatt, a professor of geological science atBrown University who worked with NASA on the Marsrovers.

"If you know the direction of wind you can begin tounderstand weather dynamics," Wyatt said in a phone interview. "Thewind on Mars is one of the most active processes for modifying the surface, andtells you a lot about the dynamics of the atmosphere."

In addition to showing wind direction, the picture alsoshows how recently a gust has blown across the crater, said Lori Fenton, ascientist the Carl Sagan Center who studies the wind patterns on Mars.

In 2003, a planet-wide dust storm deposited bright redgrit across the entire surface. Since the black trail in the photo does notdisplay any of that red dust, the black sand must have moved between the stormand when the HRSC snapped the photo, Fenton said.

"It's probably fairly recent, because there aren'tany other craters or dust particles in the dark stuff," Fenton said in aphone interview.

Researchers have looked for clues about Martian weatherin dust-strewn craters for decades, but few of those older images captured thedetail and complexity exhibited in this most recent picture.

"People have studied these types of things fordecades, and there are hundreds and hundreds of craterson Mars where people have studied wind streaks," Wyatt said. "Butthese are some of the most beautiful and detailed pictures I have ever seen ofit."

That added detail allows researcher to see the effects ofwind both inside and outside the crater, Fenton said.

While the dust blowing out of the crater clearly pointsin one direction, it appears that some of the black sand within in the craterhas blown in another direction. This indicates wind swirling around inside thecrater itself, Fenton said.

The crater rests in a Puerto Rico-sized area of Marscalled the MeridianiPlanum.

Observations of the Meridiani Planum showed an abundanceof minerals associated with water. Water's relationship to both life andfascinating geological processes makes the area one of the most interestingsites on the planet, and a natural location for exploration by both theEuropean Space Agency and NASA, Wyatt said.

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