Butterscotch valley at the north pole of Mars

By Phil Plait | March 23, 2011 7:00 am

Mars is a weird place. I mean, really. What kind of normal planet would have a huge flat valley cutting right through the north polar ice cap?

This picture [click to barsoomenate] is a combination of shots taken from 2002 – 2005 by the spacecraft Mars Odyssey, using a camera called THEMIS, which takes images in visible and infrared light. The valley is called Chasma Boreale (literally, northern chasm) and is formed by retreating ice in the cap. Over eons of time, as the cap evaporated and reformed, sand got caught in layers in the ice. Now, as the cap retreats again, the sand is released into the valley floor. You can see the layers in the valley wall in the image, and also dunes as the wind piles it up.

The valley is pretty deep: the walls can be as high as 1.4 kilometers (almost 0.9 miles)! That would be interesting to ski, especially in Mars’s lower gravity (0.38 of Earth’s). Of course, to get to this butterscotch valley, you’d have to travel through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, and through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops*.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU


* Someone must get this joke.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (50)

  1. nobody

    “Sea of swirly twirly gum drops”
    What???? Are you OK dude?

    “Someone must get this joke.”
    No, I don’t.

  2. Chris Pemberton

    Nobody – It’s from the Will Ferrell movie “Elf”.

  3. Douglas Troy

    Mars – The Candy Land of Planets.

  4. Rory Kent

    ELF! I love that movie.

    Now I wish it was Christmas…

  5. chris j.

    i guess santa claus really did conquer the martians, after all.

  6. Monkey

    I was all primed up to guess Willy Wonka….but Elf took it. Dangit!!!

    So those are sand layers, yes? Not eroded rock strata? And whats with the colour differences between the chasm ‘walls’ and the bottom? Relic of the imaging or totally different geology? Is that remaining ice?

  7. RCSI

    @chris j.
    Oh, how I despise that movie.

    Anyways, fairly interesting tast…perspective on such an interesting place.

  8. Electro

    How would one differentiate rock formed in this region from sedimentary stone laid down in the presence of water?

    (Other than testing for minerals that require liquid water to form)

    Apologies if this double posts

  9. chris j:

    i guess santa claus really did conquer the martians, after all.

    Believe it or not, while I haven’t seen “Elf”, I have seen that movie.

    And you’d think that, with all the women they took in 1967, the Martians woul’d have all the moms the needed.

  10. Holly Draine

    Why hello there, new computer wallpaper…

    Also ~ Elf=win. XD

  11. CJSF

    Just a note that this is a rendered perspective view. I think the THEMIS site calls them “Vista” views of the surface, as if you were flying over it.

    CJSF

  12. thetentman

    It looks like water at the bottom. It would make a nice secluded beach.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    I always thought *Saturn* was supposed to be the butterscotch planet? ;-)

    Wonderful landscape – it looks so inviting you could just stick a spoon in it! :-D

    But Mars “weird” – compared to what? Of all the worlds in our solar system (& beyond) Mars is probably the most familiar and earth-like we know. Sure Venus is near our planet’s mass and diameter but, Cytherean atmosphere, sulphuric acid, crushing oceanic floor type pressures, superheated surface, slow rotation-rate, etc .. hello! ;-)

  14. CR

    Huh… I thought of the old board game ‘Candyland.’ Haven’t seen ‘Elf.’

  15. ASFalcon13

    My new goal in life: to snowboard Mars. Thanks Phil!

  16. KEA

    “barsoomenate” – i love it.

  17. Kaylen

    I can’t believe anyone else has even heard of Santa Clause Conquers the Martians.

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    Not that Mars *isn’t* weird of course – just relatively less so than some of the other worlds in our solar system. ;-)

    Love the artwork there.

  19. chinki

    haha i get the joke!

  20. mechbill2112

    Phil’s an angry elf.

  21. Joseph G

    It does look almost yummy :)

    I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars); I highly, highly recommend it. I’m almost through the last one. It makes me feel, when I see pics like this, that I might go there someday :)

  22. Rebecca Harbison

    I remember at one point an Astro 102 discussion about what winter sports one could do on Mars. Because CO2 ice and frost won’t melt when you put pressure on them, so things like ice skating — which uses the pressure of the skate blades to create a thin layer of water to glide on — wouldn’t work unless you dug up some water ice. Which led to wondering if skiing would work if you only had compaction of frost/snow layers under your skis, rather than any pressure melting.

    Messier @ 12

    But Mars “weird” – compared to what? Of all the worlds in our solar system (& beyond) Mars is probably the most familiar and earth-like we know. Sure Venus is near our planet’s mass and diameter but, Cytherean atmosphere, sulphuric acid, crushing oceanic floor type pressures, superheated surface, slow rotation-rate, etc .. hello!

    Sometimes I think Mars’s Earth-like-ness makes its differences stand out more. Sort of like how you look at radar maps of Titan and they look a lot like places on Earth… until you remember that the ‘rock’ is probably water-ice and the ‘lakes’ are a methane-ethane mix. Places like Saturn or Eros are so weird there’s no terrestrial references to put you at ease.

  23. Michael S

    The polar ice cap on Mars is retreating, too? Man, this global warming thing is worse than I thought. Is it contagious?

    (just making a joke, not a statement… really)

  24. Joseph G

    @41 Tentman: It looks like water at the bottom. It would make a nice secluded beach.

    Incidentally, the whole arctic region is very low; if there was a “warm period” in Mars’ distant past, it’s possible that that’s where the beaches were (however short-lived they were).

  25. Joseph G

    @18 Rebecca Harbison: I remember at one point an Astro 102 discussion about what winter sports one could do on Mars. Because CO2 ice and frost won’t melt when you put pressure on them, so things like ice skating — which uses the pressure of the skate blades to create a thin layer of water to glide on — wouldn’t work unless you dug up some water ice. Which led to wondering if skiing would work if you only had compaction of frost/snow layers under your skis, rather than any pressure melting.
    Interesting!
    I was wondering, if you had heated skis, would the sublimation of dry ice could provide enough of a gas cushion to have a similar effect? :D

    Sometimes I think Mars’s Earth-like-ness makes its differences stand out more. Sort of like how you look at radar maps of Titan and they look a lot like places on Earth… until you remember that the ‘rock’ is probably water-ice and the ‘lakes’ are a methane-ethane mix. Places like Saturn or Eros are so weird there’s no terrestrial references to put you at ease.

    Yeah, sort of like the “uncanny valley” effect in computer animation and animatronics. It’s just similar enough that the “oddities” really stand out…

  26. Joseph G

    Coming soon: Jackass 8 (in Holovision).

    “Stev-o 2.0 here, and this is ‘Communications-dish-sledding down a 2 km ice escarpment!’”
    *garbled cries and thunks on the radio*

  27. You know, it’s pictures like this that remind me of some place on Earth. Apart from the color, that could easily just be some hill on the plains of the United States.

    Then it strikes me: my god, that’s really another world.

  28. Jeff

    I agree with #22, it looks like a cold place on earth, I would like to take a walk in this valley, that would be fun.

  29. Crux Australis

    Could someone please brush me up on my Latin? Why aurora borealIS, but chasma borealE? Aren’t aurora and chasma the same gender?

  30. NoAstronomer

    Mars weird? Guess so. Personally I think the Earth is probably the weirdest place we know of. It just doesn’t seem that way because we live here. I understand that on earth you can find…

    - Molten rock. Yes, rock actually melts.
    - Free oxygen molecules.
    - Layers of rock, many meters thick, made out of the remnants of living creatures.
    - Sometimes liquid, or even frozen, water falls out of the atmosphere.
    - Pools of liquid water so deep that if you stood in them the water would actually be over your head*.

    Mike

    * Someone MUST get that.

  31. Jub

    @ 18. Rebecca Harbison

    IIRC, there was a fairly recent study that found that a small surface layer of free water molecules on ice is what makes it slippery, not pressure or friction.

  32. mike burkhart

    You can’t expect other planets to be like Earth ,every one will be diferent form our own. No one thought there would be an ocean under Earths north polar cap. In fact the ancient Greeks thought there was a land called Hyperborea at the northern most part of the Earth. From its description we know the Greeks never went to the north pole there writings say Hyperborea was warm and covered with fog. Also in a case where science got it worng ,during the age of discovery
    it was discoverd the most of the land was in the northern hemispher so they thought that there must be a veary large continent at the south pole that keept the planet in balance they called it Terra Austrlus . many tried to discover it but only found a small continent that was named Anartica , not the big land they thought was there.

  33. Charlie Young

    I know Elf was already submitted, but I just got around to reading this.

  34. Gonçalo Aguiar

    I didn’t get the joke. Please someone enlighten me.

  35. No, you couldn’t ski there, because a ski resort represents unbridled capitalism, and, as we all should know, capitalism is what killed off a once thriving Martian civilization…
    http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/66414/hugo-chavez-capitalism-killed-life-on-mars/

  36. @24:

    Aurora, -ae is feminine as expected, but chasma, -atis is neuter (because it’s a Greek loanword, and the Romans kept the original Greek grammatical gender).

  37. Gary Ansorge

    25. NoAstronomer

    OMG! FREE OXYGEN? That stuff is nearly as reductive as Fluorine. A nasty element for any hydrogen based life form to deal with,,,

    “Pools of liquid water so deep that if you stood in them the water would actually be over your head*.”

    Liquid H2O? Did you know that stuff will dissolve glass(if you wait long enough). I was in just such a concentration of H2O once. Fortunately, I was wearing an environmental suit at the time(scuba gear).

    Gary 7

  38. Gr8GooglyMoogly

    ” … you’d have to travel through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, and through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops…”.

    Or maybe the Fireswamp with its Lightning Sand and ROUSs?

  39. Vex

    @21 – Joseph G:

    Yes! The Mars trilogy is fantastic! I stumbled across Red Mars at a used book store and finished reading it that same weekend. Then quite some time later I found myself at yet another used book store and they had Green Mars and Blue Mars.

    Pictures like this really show how something can be so familiar, yet so foreign. If humans ever make it to Mars, I can only imagine what it would be like to get used to the different environment!

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    @25. NoAstronomer :

    Mars weird? Guess so. Personally I think the Earth is probably the weirdest place we know of. It just doesn’t seem that way because we live here. I understand that on earth you can find…

    - Molten rock. Yes, rock actually melts.

    But then there’s Io which has turned itself inside out through volcanism and continues to do so.

    Venus may well be volcanic & cyrovulcanism occurs on Enceladus and Triton and maybe Charon too. ;-)

    - Free oxygen molecules.

    A trifle unusual that, I’ll grant you – but I think there’s also free oxygen streaming off Europa unless I’m mistaken. (Which I could be, natch.)

    - Layers of rock, many meters thick, made out of the remnants of living creatures.

    Could possibly also be true of Mars, Europa and maybe other places – we just don’t know yet! ;-)

    - Sometimes liquid, or even frozen, water falls out of the atmosphere.

    As it does on Titan (methane rain) & Venus (sulphuric acid rain, possible metal “snows” if I’m remembering past reading right) then there’s Pluto where the whole atmosphere boils off the surface, expands out and then freezes, snowing out back again out every Plutonian year!

    - Pools of liquid water so deep that if you stood in them the water would actually be over your head*.
    Mike
    * Someone MUST get that.

    That’s a Dune reference there right? ;-)

    I understand what your’e getting at there however & generally like what you’ve said but just pointing out some minor points. :-)

    Strangeness / weirdness is relative.

    @29. Gary Ansorge : Did you know that stuff will dissolve glass(if you wait long enough).

    Umm.. no I didn’t. Thanks. That’s the something new I’ve learnt for today. Water dissolves glass eh? Wow, I must clean my windows and wash my glass cups less often! Good excuse that. ;-)

    @17. Joseph G : I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars); I highly, highly recommend it.

    Seconded by me. Those are awesome books indeed – very high on my favourites list with lots of good astronomy in them too. :-)

    When I was a kid I expected to see people land on Mars in my lifetime – probably around the late 90′s & by 2010 at latest. Now, well I still *hope* to see that but I’m nowhere near as confident & I fear I’ll have to live a *lot* longer to witness it. Sigh.

  41. Messier Tidy Upper

    but I think there’s also free oxygen streaming off Europa unless I’m mistaken. (Which I could be, natch.)

    But not this time :

    Observations with the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph of the Hubble Space Telescope, first described in 1995, revealed that Europa has a tenuous atmosphere composed mostly of molecular oxygen (O2). The surface pressure of Europa’s atmosphere is 0.1 μPa, or 10 [superscript]minus 12 times[/superscript] that of the Earth. In 1997, the Galileo spacecraft confirmed the presence of a tenuous ionosphere (an upper-atmospheric layer of charged particles) around Europa created by solar radiation and energetic particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere, providing evidence of an atmosphere.

    Unlike the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, Europa’s is not of biological origin. The surface-bounded atmosphere forms through radiolysis, the dissociation of molecules through radiation.

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_(moon)#Atmosphere

    Plus see :

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v373/n6516/abs/373677a0.html original paper abstract.

    Whilst a quick search shows that Europa isn’t alone :

    http://www.space.com/9599-saturn-moon-rhea-surprise-oxygen-rich-atmosphere.html

    As it turns out that the Saturnian satellite Rhea has an oxygen atmosphere too! :-)

    ****
    PS. Can you do superscript (higher letters) here & if so how? Scientific notation, ten to the minus twelve times became 10-12 times on cut’n'paste transfer which I think rather alters the intended meaning! ;-)

  42. Nigel Depledge

    Gr8GooglyMoogly (38) said:

    Or maybe the Fireswamp with its Lightning Sand and ROUSs?

    Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t believe they really exist.

  43. Ian

    I’m guessing this image was composited of at least 2 images in the visible range. There appears to be a double shadow of the hill in the foreground. Or just maybe just some convenient shading of the sand?

  44. #41 MTU:
    Try using the HTML tags [super] and [/super] – and [sub] and [/sub] for subscripts. With the square brackets replaced by angle brackets, naturally; I obviously can’t type the actual tags without them being interpreted.

  45. Georg

    @ 22. Rebecca Harbison
    Because that urban legend is still limited to earth, sking on mars will work.
    This “pressure melting” theory is wrong even for skating, for skiing it was cited only by people incapable of doing a simple division.

  46. heng

    That’s a beautiful view!
    I wanna go there sooo bad…

    I hope whoever gets there will have had some serious astronaut training (http://www.amazingsuperpowers.com/2009/06/astronaut-training/) SCNR

  47. NoAstronomer

    @Messier Tidy Upper (#40) and Gary Ansorge (#37):

    I’m so disappointed. The ‘water over your head’ reference is from the Robert Heinlein novel ‘Podkayne of Mars’. In which the eponymous teenage heroine, having lived her entire life on Mars and about to embark on a trip to Earth. frankly disbelieves that such an immense quantity of water could possibly exist.

    Mike.

  48. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 44. Neil Haggath : Thanks for that. :-)

    Testing, testing, testing 123 ..

    EDIT to add : [/sup] seems to work where [super] doesn’t.

    @ 47. NoAstronomer : Durn! Okay, I’ll have to find a copy of that one.

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