Stunning new Mars photos explore the largest canyon in the solar system

New images from Mars explore the depths of the Red Planet’s Valles Marineris Canyon, the largest canyon system in the Solar System.

European Space Agency (ESA) images, which were taken using the spacecraft’s High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), also capture incredible detail on the canyon floor. Unlike the Grand Canyon, which was carved out by the Colorado River, Valles Marineris is thought to have formed from tectonic plates that pulled apart. This violent movement on the Martian surface has created a jagged canyon floor, as seen in the new images.

“The gnarled soil of Ius Chasma is equally fascinating,” ESA officials wrote in the statement. (opens in a new tab) accompanying the new images. “As the tectonic plates pulled apart, they appeared to cause jagged triangles of rock to form that resemble a row of sharks’ teeth. Over time, these rock formations collapsed and eroded.”

Related: The largest canyon in the solar system revealed in new images

ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, orbiting the Red Planet since 2003, zoomed in on two trenches that are part of western Valles Marineris: Ius Chasma and Tithonium Chasma. The images not only capture incredible surface detail, but also highlight the impressive size of the trenches.

Valles Marineris is 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) long, 124 miles (200 km) wide and 4.3 miles (7 km) deep – almost ten times longer, 20 times wider and five times deeper than the Grand Canyon, according to the ESA statement.

This color-coded topographic image shows Ius and Tithonium Chasmata, which are part of the Valles Marineris canyon structure of Mars. (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

The Lus Chasma on the south side of the canyon is 522 miles (840 kilometers) long, while the Tithonium Chasma on the north side is 500 miles (805 km) long. For comparison, the Grand Canyon is 446 km long and just over a mile at its deepest point. On Earth, Valles Marineris would cover the distance between the northern tip of Norway and the southern tip of Sicily, the statement said.

ESA’s view of the two chasms captures the diverse surface features of Mars, ranging from darkness sand dunes created by nearby volcanic activity, mountain-sized mounds that have been eroded by the wind, smaller bumps that may have formed from the evaporation of water that once filled the sinkhole and evidence of a recent landslide caused by the collapse of the canyon wall.

Various spacecraft studying Valles Marineris have found evidence to suggest that liquid water may have once filled the canyon. The Mars Express mission detected traces of water-bearing sulfate minerals in the Ius Chasma and Tithonium Chasma region, while ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), part of the ExoMars missiondetected water ice beneath the surface of Candor Chaos, located near the center of the massive canyon system.

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Arline J. Mercier