The Runes of Mars

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Crikey! Never mind about that alleged Face on Mars:

Take a look at this, photographed by NASA’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter!

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Obviously, the ancient civilization that lived on the fourth planet and redesigned the landscape for our telescopic pleasure wasn’t Martians. It was Tolkien’s elves* from Middle Earth! Somebody, hurry up and translate those runes on Mars so that we can stop Sauron!

No? No. What look like curvy runes are really aerial views of cones related to ancient volcanic activity, similar to what can be found in parts of Iceland. According to the HIRISE team, at some point in Mars’s history, a sheet of lava flowed across this landscape, which must have then included deposits of moisture—perhaps liquid water, maybe more probably ice. That water vaporized, gathered pressure and eventually burst forth from the ground with sufficient force to toss chunks of cooling lava into the air, which then fall to the ground and accumulate in the shape of an irregular ring, forming the cones.

The cones are arranged in lines because the entire sheet of cooling lava meanwhile continued to drift as a whole across this field of steam-venting hotspots. This description by Lazslo Kestay, writing for the HIRISE project, notes that the same kinds of tectonic movements over a hotspot on the Pacific Ocean floor gave rise to the chain of Hawaiian islands.

This image is one of 236 taken in July and released by HIRISE on Sept. 1. Check out the gallery to see them all. (H/T to Lisa Grossman at Wired Science for pointing these out.)

By the way, as for the Face on Mars? Seen from a different angle, it doesn’t look like anyone I know.

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Mars Express Close-Up of the Face on Mars [Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR; Malin Space Science Systems, MOC

(*Thanks, I know, there’s surely some proper name for them other than “Tolkien’s elves”—some glorious and magical name of his imagining that sounds like a Welsh hiccup. But even my nerd credentials only go so far.)

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