The surface of Mars never ceases to amaze me. Orbiting spacecraft have caught landslides happening in real time and dust devils spinning up. Today, a small rock feature is generating a ton of buzz across the internet. One eagle-eyed observer from the UnmannedSpaceflight.com forum spotted one of the coolest rock formations seen on Mars’ surface.
It’s being dubbed the ‘floating spoon.’ NASA’s Curiosity rover snapped the image on Aug 30.
A desolate red planet
This rock outcropping illustrates just how desolate Mars is. As Discovery News points out, the ‘floating spoon’ was likely shaped by wind. Earth’s no stranger to unusual rock formations. But the ones here are shaped by multiple processes – wind, rain and geological.
Mars doesn’t have rain. Or earthquakes. Wind is the main process of erosion. And Mars can have plenty of it. Massive dust storms can envelop the entire planet. The image below shows one of the largest to hit the red planet in 2001.
It’s this type of wind that can shape delicate features like the ‘floating spoon.’ The presence of any other processes would probably have snapped the rock formation by now.
I wonder how long that rock formation has been there? Wind erosion shaped it, but it’s hard to imagine the same wind won’t eventually tear it down. I hope members of Curiosity’s team talk about the rock formation at some point. It could be a trick of the light, but it does look like the tip of the rock formation is floating above the ground.
Wind on Mars
Heat from the sun. It’s the main driving force behind wind on Earth. And the same is true on Mars. The greater the temperature variation, the more likely a dust storm can form.
Did you know dust storms on Mars often originate from one location? Hellas Basin is “the biggest hole in the ground in the entire solar system,” according to Arizona State University’s Dr. Jim Bell.
Hellas Basin is enormous. It’s 6 km deep and 2000 km across. “Hellas is a dust bowl,” says Bell. “Because the basin is so deep, air at the bottom is about 10 degrees or so warmer than air at the top. This gradient drives winds, which can carry dust all the way out of the crater.”
Here’s another example of a dust storm on Mars.
And a dust devil.
Image credits: NASA