Rabe Crater is a 108 km-wide impact crater with an intricately shaped dune field. The dune material likely comprises locally eroded sediments that have been shaped by prevailing winds. The image resolution is about 15 m per pixel.Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

Rabe Crater is a 108 km-wide impact crater with an intricately shaped dune field. The dune material likely comprises locally eroded sediments that have been shaped by prevailing winds. The image resolution is about 15 m per pixel. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

A breathtaking new mosaic from ESA’s Mars Express shows a stunning swirling field of dark dunes cascading into sunken pits within a large impact crater.

The mosaic was created from two images and focuses on the 108 km-wide Rabe crater. The region is 320 km to the west of the large Hellas impact basin, about halfway between the planet’s equator and south pole.

Rabe crater has an interesting topography: its flat floor has a number of smaller craters and large sunken pits within it. The bulk of the dune material sits atop the flat remnant of the original crater floor, but then some of it spills dramatically down into the pits below.

The dunes stand some 150-200 m tall and their swirling patterns indicate the prevailing direction of the winds that have whipped across the crater over time. The dunes are made of basaltic material, a common volcanic rock. In the region shown here, it was subsequently covered over by other layers of material, uncovered by erosion within the crater itself.

Artist rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit: Alex Lutkus

Artist rendering of the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit: Alex Lutkus

Zooming in on the western portion of the crater reveals distinct layers of dark material exposed in the crater walls. One possible interpretation is that the impact crater punched through the top surface to reveal these otherwise hidden layers. Over time, this material has been eroded and swept up by wind to form the dunes seen towards the centre of the crater.

Similar dark material can also be seen in several of the smaller craters surrounding Rabe, with streaks staining the surface in between, most notably in the left-hand side of the image above. It is possible that some of the dune material was lifted out of Rabe by strong winds and spread locally.

Other nearby craters look degraded, their once-distinct rims and internal features crumbling over time. This ‘terrain softening’ process is often associated with the presence of ice just below the surface: this can facilitate the slow and steady creep of material downslope, resulting in a smooth appearance.

Material deposited from the atmosphere, perhaps during sand storms, can also contribute to an apparent softening of features over time.

By contrast, one crater to the upper left of Rabe shown here retains a sharper appearance. A closer examination of this relatively deep crater reveals fresh-looking channels and grooves in the crater walls.

Grooves like these are often associated with erosion by liquid water but, regardless of their formation history, they can also expose underlying layers, such as the dark material common to this region. Furthermore, a dense patch of this material is seen concentrated in the deepest part of the crater floor.

Impact craters like Rabe offer a window into the past by exposing ancient rocks that would otherwise remain hidden from view. Meanwhile, the dunes show the important continuing role played by wind in shaping the martian landscape.

Data from the nadir channel and one stereo channel of the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express have been combined to produce this anaglyph 3D image, which can be viewed using stereoscopic glasses with red–green or red–blue filters.
The image focuses on Rabe crater and its intricate dune field, material that has been shaped by prevailing winds. The image was created using data acquired with the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 7 December 2005 (orbit 2441) and 9 January 2014 (orbit 12736). Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

Data from the nadir channel and one stereo channel of the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express have been combined to produce this anaglyph 3D image, which can be viewed using stereoscopic glasses with red–green or red–blue filters.
The image focuses on Rabe crater and its intricate dune field, material that has been shaped by prevailing winds. The image was created using data acquired with the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 7 December 2005 (orbit 2441) and 9 January 2014 (orbit 12736). Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of RocketSTEM.
You may download the entire issue as a PDF file here, or view the magazine online in a full-screen viewer here.