The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a 3-minute video that pieces together a series of snapshots taken by its Mars Express spacecraft during its flybys of the Red Planet.
The video constructs the spacecraft’s flight over the Neukum Crater, “a fascinating Martian crater” named after one of the mission’s founders, the German physicist and planetary scientist Gerhard Neukum.
Famed for its stunning dark dune fields, this spectacular crater is located in the ancient Noachis Terra, one of the planet’s oldest regions, and dates back to almost four billion years ago.
Boasting a rich geological history, the Neukum Crater stretches over 102 kilometers (or almost 64 miles) in Mars’ southern highlands and showcases an impressive variety of geomorphological features, displayed both on the crater’s rims and floor.
Aside from its striking dark dunes, which the ESA notes are most “likely made up of volcanic material” relentlessly churned by strong winds, the Neukum Crater also exhibits “two irregular depressions” sprinkled with a few sand islands that overcame erosion over the billions of years since it was formed.
Described as a “complex impact crater,” this impressive Martian feature also shows its troubled history in the collapse and landslides of its rim, clearly visible in the newly-released Mars Express footage.
“Many smaller craters have also overprinted the rim and pockmarked the interior since Neukum Crater was formed, highlighting its long history,” the ESA wrote in the description of the video unveiled by the agency earlier this month.
According to the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the images featured in the short movie were captured by the spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), which was developed by the late German physicist and is now operated by the DLR.
The photos were taken more than a decade ago, during HRSC observations that took place in December 2005 and May 2007, the ESA explained in a previous news release.
The appeal of the Neukum Crater has only increased with time, considering this ancient crater is one of the few preserved over billions of years.
The Mars Express mission, Europe’s first excursion on an alien planet in our solar system, has gathered valuable data since the beginning of its science operations in 2004 and has enabled astronomers to determine the age of Martian craters.
Using a statistical method developed by Neukum in the 1970s, researchers succeeded in dating the Neukum Crater judging by the distribution of the various-size smaller craters in its interior.
“This crater size-frequency distribution was calibrated by assessing the age of rock samples from the Moon collected at the six landing sites during the Apollo missions and brought back to Earth,” details the DLR.
This ingenious method revealed that the crater’s oldest sediments, located near its rim, are 3.5- to 3.7-billion-years-old. At the same time, researchers established that the most recent sediments in Neukum Crater are only 66-million-years-old, which indicates “geological overprinting by different processes,” shows the DLR.
These recent sediments have filled the crater’s floor, flattening its original bowl-shaped interior, which used to be a lot deeper.