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Lowell Crater

Lowell Crater

Earlier this week the European Space Agency (ESA) released a dramatic new image of a crater on Mars officially known as Lowell Crater — in honor of Percival Lowell. The timing of the is ideal since we are less than two weeks from the 125th anniversary of Lowell establishing his observatory in Flagstaff to study this planet (to be precise, Lowell arrived in town on May 28, 1894 to begin his research).

Lowell lies in the southern hemisphere of Mars. Scientists estimate it was created between 3.7 to 3.9 billion years ago when a chunk of space rock bashed into the Martian surface. The result was not only a crater measuring 127 miles in diameter, but also an interior mountain ring likely formed by surface material that surged upward during the impact. The result is a bullseye pattern punctuated by two smaller, younger craters on or near the crater’s rim.

The bullseye pattern is similar to that of Chicxulub Crater, which formed in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago when an asteroid measuring somewhere between six and 50 miles in diameter impacted. This is the event many scientists believe caused the extinction of 75% of life on Earth at the time, including the dinosaurs.

Since the crater formed, it has undergone erosion that formed gullies and channels and covered the crater floor with sediment. Many of these features are clearly evident in the new image, which is a mosaic of pictures captured over seven orbits of Mars by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board the Mars Express spacecraft.

Alas, one thing missing from the image is any trace of the supposed planet-spanning linear features Percival Lowell envisioned as canals built by intelligent life to transport water from the polar ice caps to the rest of the parched planet.

Mars Express is the ESA’s first planetary mission, launched in 2003 and collecting Martian data ever since that, is helping scientists to characterize the geology, atmosphere, historical presence of water, and potential for life on the red planet.

The International Astronomical Union officially adopted the name Lowell Crater in 1973. While it has been imaged several times in the past, none of these previous efforts come close in detail to “125th Anniversary Image” just released.

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