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NASA orbiter captures Mars avalanche

While on duty to track seasonal changes on Mars, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter produced spectacular images showing evidence of Martian avalanches of ice and dust.

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The US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) on Tuesday released the first ever images of avalanches on Mars, which were captured by a US spacecraft orbiting the red planet.

The spectacular images, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on February 19, show tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, following Martian avalanches of ice and dust.

The orbiter took the photos using a high-resolution imaging camera called HiRISE.

According to a NASA researcher, spotting the avalanches in the images was a happy surprise, as the aim of the photo shoot on Mars was to track seasonal changes, not look for landslides.

"We were checking for springtime changes in the carbon-dioxide frost covering a dune field ... Finding the avalanches was serendipitous," Candice Hansen, deputy principal investigator for HiRISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was quoted as saying on the space agency's website.

The landslides were first noticed by Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who helps to aim the camera and has studied hundreds of the images it has sent back, the website said.

"It really surprised me," she said. "It's great to see something so dynamic on Mars. A lot of what we see there hasn't changed for millions of years."

NASA researchers are unsure what caused the landslides and plan to take more images to further study the phenomenon to see if it occurs year-round or only at the beginning of the Mars spring.

They hope that studying images taken at the same site over the next few months will allow them to estimate what proportion of the avalanche debris is ice, and give them a better understanding of the Martian water cycle.

"We'll be watching to see if blocks and other debris shrink in size. What we learn could give us a better understanding of one part of the water cycle on Mars," said Patrick Russell of the University of Berne in Switzerland, who works on the HiRISE project.

"If blocks of ice broke loose and fell, we expect the water in them will be changing from solid to gas," he said.

Some 2,400 images taken by the orbiter, including one of a blue crescent Earth and its moon, and dramatic canyons and patterns of sand dunes on Mars, were published on Tuesday by NASA.

Since the orbiter reached the red planet two years ago, it has returned more data than all other missions to Mars combined, the US space agency said.
 

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