NASA: Odd landforms discovered on Mars leave scientists puzzled

NASA: Odd landforms discovered on Mars leave scientists puzzled

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A series of odd landforms has left scientists working in conjunction with the U.S. space agency a bit puzzled.

Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show exposed rock strata in periodic bedrock ridges on the floor of the West Candor Chasma on Mars. The landforms have left University of Washington scientists puzzled, saying earth does not have an equivalent feature.

“These bedforms look for all the world like sand dunes but they are carved into hard rock by wind,” said David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, said in a statement Thursday. “It is something there are not many analogs for on Earth.”

The team of scientists say the ridges are composed of a softer, more erodible material than typical bedrock and were formed by an unusual form of wind erosion.

The eroded rocks could be revealing some of the past geological history of Mars, say scientists.

“You could actually go back and look at some earlier eras in Martian history, and the wind would have done us the favor of exposing the layers that would have that history within it,” said Mr. Montgomery. “There are some areas of the Martian surface, potentially large areas, that up until now we’ve thought you couldn’t really get very far back into Mars history geologically.”

The discovery could shed light on the evolution of Mars and its environment, which scientists think was fairly similar to Earth’s at one point. The team of scientists said the difference between dunes and eroded rock could mean the difference between examining a rick history of sediment, or a windswept region which would yield little in terms of data.

“The discovery is important because if the ridges were actually created by wind depositing material into dunes you’re not going to have information from any prior history of the material that is exposed at the surface,” said Mr. Montgomery. 
”But if it’s cut into instead, and you’re looking at the residual of a rock that has been eroded away, you can still get the history of what was happening long ago from that spot… You could actually go back and look at some earlier eras in Martian history, and the wind would have done us the favor of exposing the layers that would have that history within it.”

The discovery, however, could face the consequences of the latest budget proposal put forth by the White House.

The latest budget proposal of $17.7 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent or $59 million from the 2012 budget, place the U.S. space agency at its lowest level of funding in four years. President Obama’s budget request for NASA includes a flat budget through 2017, with no out-year growth even for inflation, and is just the latest in a series of cost-cutting measures put forth by the Democratic administration.

Specifically, Mars exploration would be cut $226.2 million in fiscal 2013 under the new NASA budget request released Feb. 13, down from $587 million in the current fiscal year. The remaining $360.8 million will go for the nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) now en route to the Red Planet, and the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (Maven) orbiter scheduled for a launch in 2013 to study the planet’s upper atmosphere.

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