NASA Spots Spectacular Rock Formations On Mars—And Scientists Don't Know What's Caused Them

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, has been circling the Red Planet since 2006, beaming numerous spectacular images back to Earth. But a picture captured by the spacecraft on January 27 has particularly intrigued scientists.

The image—which was taken from about 200 miles above the planet’s north pole—reveals a landscape adorned with striking, dark gray sand dunes juxtaposed against a strange, rocky surface covered in geometric patterns.

When the image is magnified, alternate light and dark parallel stripes reveal themselves. And within the darker regions lie neatly organized piles of boulders spaced at curiously regular intervals.

NASA scientists are not entirely sure what caused these neatly formed piles. However, they speculate that it could be connected to a phenomenon called frost heave.

“With frost heave, repeated freezing and thawing of the ground can bring rocks to the surface and organize them into piles, stripes or even circles,” NASA explained in a statement.

PIA22334 An image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Frost heave also occurs on Earth, where this freezing and thawing cycle takes about a year. But on Mars, the statement noted, the process “might be connected to changes in the planet's orbit around the sun, which takes 687 days.”  

The image was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera aboard the MRO as part of a project to track the movement of sand dunes near the planet's north pole. The MRO, which was built by Lockheed Martin under the supervision of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, launched in August 2005 and took about seven and a half months to reach the Red Planet.

marsboulders2 An enlarged section of the image, showing the striped areas with neat boulder piles more clearly. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Costing $720 million, the mission was designed to help astronomers learn more about various Martian features, ranging from the planet’s atmosphere to the regions below the surface. As part of this mission, MRO has also searched for signs of water on the planet.

Recently, the MRO detected multiple sites on Mars that host vast water ice deposits, according to research published in the journal Science. These sites could prove crucial as a source of water for any future manned mission to the Red Planet.

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