A 'Hairy Blue Spider' on Mars Is One of the Cool New Scenes Captured by European Orbiter

By George Dvorsky on at

Sadly, David Bowie was wrong about spiders on Mars, despite this exciting new image of what appears to a gigantic blue tarantula on the Martian surface. In reality, the false-colour picture shows a series of trails produced by Martian dust devils. The photo is one of many captured by Europe’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, some of which were released today for our viewing pleasure.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) arrived at Mars in October 2016, but it didn’t enter into its low, planet-skimming orbit until February 2018, with science operations commencing a couple of months later. This project is being managed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, and its primary mission is to hunt for trace gases like methane to help scientists better understand the Red Planet’s capacity—or former capacity—to foster life.

But TGO arrived at Mars with a rather excellent camera known as the Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS), which it’s been using to explore the Martian surface from orbit. CaSSIS is unique in that it can use its camera to produce hi-res, crystal-clear images in 3D, in addition to conventional 2D images. A new set of pictures released today are a good example of what TGO can do.

A false-colour image of the Terra Sabaea region of Mars shows a very spider-like set of features on the surface. It’s actually the trails left behind by dust devils, a frequent weather phenomenon on Mars. This pattern was observed on the crest of a ridge, and it’s “essentially the convergence of hundreds or maybe even thousands of smaller martian tornadoes,” according to the ESA. The image was shown in a colour-composite view to bring out the surface features. Its actual colour, said the ESA, would be dark red, as the dust devils expose fresh material from below the surface.

InSight and its associated detritus. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

The TGO also spotted NASA’s InSight lander, which was previously photographed by NASA’s Reconnaissance Orbiter. This is the first photo captured of InSight by ExoMars, and it marks the first time a European probe has spotted a lander on Mars, according to an ESA press release. This greyscale image was taken on March 2, 2019—exactly the same time when the probe was hammering, albeit futilely, into the Martian surface (the digger got stuck on an apparent rock, and NASA is currently trying to figure out what to do—and no, the pull-out method is not an option).

The image shows an area slightly bigger than 2 square kilometres. InSight is small speck inside the dark blotch, the latter of which was produced by the probe’s retrorockets during touchdown. The spacecraft’s heatshield and parachute can be seen nearby.

Interestingly, TGO and InSight are teammates.

“The TGO is being used to relay data from InSight to Earth,” said Nicolas Thomas, CaSSIS principal investigator, in a University of Bern press release. “Because of this function, to avoid uncertainties in communications, we had not been able to point the camera towards the landing site so far—we had to wait until the landing site passed directly under the spacecraft to get this image.”

Activity picked up by InSight’s seismometer could be a sign that a meteorite crashed nearby. Should that happen, TGO would hunt for the associated impact crater.

Layered mounds near a crater. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

Other images include the edge of a layered mound in Burroughs crater near the Martian south pole. Dust and ice have formed layers in the crater over hundreds of millions of years, though the origin of ice in the crater is somewhat of a mystery.

A crater inside a much bigger crater. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

The image above shows a one-kilometre-wide crater inside the 100-kilometre-wide Columbus Crater, located in the southern hemisphere of Mars. The bright band across the bottom of the image is composed of various hydrated minerals, including sulphate salts.

Curious landforms at Hellas Basin. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

The image above shows the creamy surface of the Hellas Basin, demonstrating the geological variability of the sometimes not-so-red planet.

The floor of Kibuye crater in the Terra Sirenum region of Mars. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

Other images released today, available here, show new surface features, polar layer deposits, dunes, and landscapes with dynamic topologies, which scientists will use to decipher Mars’ geological history. Some are also in stereoscopic view, so break out your 3D glasses. [University of Bern, ESA]

Featured Image: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

Tags: