Scars on Mars: NASA finds landing blasts fade inconsistently

NASA wants to model the blast zone for future missions, study

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After a few years of watching over NASA’s Mars Curiosity landing site the space agency has found that blast marks made by the initial decent vehicle have not faded away as one might expect.

Rather, NASA said, after fading for about two years, the pace of change slowed and some of the scars may have even darkened again.

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NASA employs the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to make the observations which the space agency says it will use to model the fading and predict how long it would take for the scars to disappear.

The idea is to help do prep work for NASA's next Mars lander, InSight, which could launch in March 2016.

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This color-enhanced view shows the terrain around the rover's landing site within Gale Crater on Mars. Colors were enhanced to bring out subtle differences, showing that the landing region is not as colorful as regions to the south, closer to Mount Sharp. (NASA; University of Arizona)

NASA said the InSight mission will deploy a heat probe that will hammer itself a few yards, or meters, deep into the ground to monitor heat coming from the interior of the planet. The brightness of the ground affects temperature below ground, because a dark surface warms in sunshine more than a bright one does.

Spacecraft that land in dusty areas of Mars create dark blast zone patterns where bright dust is blown away by the landing. Monitoring with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows these dark patterns fade over time in a surprising way, NASA said.

For example, NASA writes that the first series of images HiRISE took shows a repeating sequence of seven images of the scar where the Mars Science Laboratory's descent stage hit the ground.

“The descent stage, or "sky crane," had lowered Curiosity onto the ground and then flown approximately 2,100 feet (650 meters) away and hit the ground. The fading of the dark blast zone resembles what has been observed at other Mars landing sites, presumably because bright dust is settling on the surface and masking the blast zones. Scientists thought they could model this fading and predict how long it would take for the patterns to disappear entirely. However, the most recent image, taken in February 2015, shows that this blast zone is not fading as quickly as expected, and may even be darkening. This indicates that understanding is still incomplete about processes that move dust around on the Martian surface.”

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