The Martian North Polar Cap in Summer - One Year Later
October 21, 2009
In the middle of January 2001, Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) completed one Mars year in its ~380 km-high (236 mi) mapping orbit. The mapping orbit was originally achieved in late February 1999. In March of that year, MGS conducted a series of operations in preparation for full-up mapping, first calibrating its scientific instruments and then operating in a mode in which the high gain antenna was held fixed against the body of the spacecraft. During this Fixed High Gain Antenna period, "contingency science" observations were made in case the high gain antenna failed to properly deploy. The wide angle view of the martian north polar cap shown on the left (previously part of our "1st Mars Sampler" release) was acquired on March 13, 1999, during early northern summer. The image on the right was acquired almost exactly one Mars year later, on January 26, 2001. The light-toned surfaces are residual water ice that remains through the summer season. The nearly circular band of dark material surrounding the cap consists mainly of sand dunes formed and shaped by wind. The north polar cap is roughly 1100 kilometers (680 miles) across. Close inspection will show that there are differences in the frost cover between the two images (for example, in the upper center of each image, and on the left edge center). Although these changes appear small, they are in fact quite large--the change in frost covering is equivalent to the amount of frost that would be evaporated (in the case of areas that are darker) or deposited (in areas where frost is still on the ground) in almost 5 months. What gives rise to such large changes in the heat budget for the polar caps from one year to the next is not known. Changes in the coloration and brightness of the polar cap suggest dust, deposited perhaps by dust storms during critical periods of the year, may play an important role.