Solar system worlds beyond Earth have amazing surface features. Thanks to planetary science missions, we see images of canyons, craters, and cliffs across a variety of worlds. Someday, those places will give mountain climbers and hikers new challenges. In particular, Mars will be a favored destination. Future hikers and mountain climbers will be spoiled for choice, even if they must wear space suits to get their thrill on.
For example, there’s the Valles Marineris canyon region. It’s the largest known such feature in the solar system, many times larger than the Grand Canyon here on Earth. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter just returned breathtaking images of this rift canyon.
Mars and the Mars Express Images
The latest view from Mars Express focused on two trenches—called “chasma”—in western Valles Marineris. They’re Ius Chasma and Tithonium Chasma, the deepest parts of the canyons. The whole system looks complex and intricate. That’s because it formed from tectonic activity instead of the erosion process that created the Grand Canyon. Think of it like a crack in the crust. It likely formed as infant Mars cooled. The region was also affected by changes in the crust of the Tharsis region to the west. Then, as the gap widened, erosion took over. Those processes created the canyon system we see today. It’s a giant set of canyons 4,000 km long, 200 km wide, and up to 7 km deep in places.
This mapped image shows the regions of Ius and Tithonium Chasmata, which Mars Express imaged. These two areas form part of Mars’s Valles Marineris canyon structure. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 21 April 2022 during orbit 23123. Courtesy, Mars Express/NASA/MGS/MOLA Science Team
The Mars Express orbiter has been circling the Red Planet since 2003. Its main job is to image and map the surface and minerals. It sends back data about the atmosphere and can probe beneath the crust. The spacecraft uses the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) to create detailed images of the surface. Through that camera, planetary scientists have seen spectacular views of everything from wind-sculpted ridges and grooves, to impact craters and channels that once carried liquid water. They’ve also studied volcanoes, tectonic faults, river channels, and ancient lava pools.
Hiking The Martian Canyons
Images of Martian surface terrain from Mars Express and other missions inspire dreams of exploration. For the adventurous, they also suggest extended hiking trips across the Red Planet. So, imagine walking up to the edge of Tithonium Chasma, for example, and looking down into the canyon. It’s big enough and deep enough to dwarf some of Earth’s tallest mountains. And, it won’t be an easy hike.
At the top of Tithonium, there are deposits of dark material that could be windblown volcanic sand from the west. After you clear those, you cross a couple of 3,000-meter-tall mountains that have been eroded by the Martian winds. The descent continues through areas that may once have been flooded with some sort of liquid. And, of course, there are landslide areas and other rough terrains to get through before you reach the bottom.