Washington, March 5 : A NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mars has taken the first ever image of active avalanches near the Red Planet's north pole.
Captured by the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the photograph shows tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, where ice and dust have just cascaded down.
The camera is looking repeatedly at selected places on Mars to track seasonal changes. However, the main target of the new image was not the steep slope.
"We were checking for springtime changes in the carbon-dioxide frost covering a dune field, and finding the avalanches was completely serendipitous," said Candice Hansen, deputy principal investigator for HiRISE, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
The full image reveals features as small as a desk in a strip of terrain 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) wide and more than 10 times that long, at 84 degrees north latitude.
Reddish layers known to be rich in water ice make up the face of a steep slope more than 700 meters (2,300 feet) tall, running the length of the image.
"We don't know what set off these landslides," said Patrick Russell of the University of Berne, Switzerland, a HiRISE team collaborator. "We plan to take more images of the site through the changing Martian seasons to see if this kind of avalanche happens all year or is restricted to early spring," he added.
More ice than dust probably makes up the material that fell from the upper portion of the scarp. Imaging of the site during coming months will track any changes in the new deposit at the base of the slope, which will help researchers estimate what proportion is ice.
"If blocks of ice broke loose and fell, we expect the water in them will be changing from solid to gas," said Russell.
"We'll be watching to see if blocks and other debris shrink in size. What we learn could give us a better understanding of one part of the water cycle on Mars," he added.