Mars pits: Gaze into the abyss with these wild NASA images

The planet isn't just mountains, craters and plains. It also has a collection of bizarre pit-like formations that capture the eye and the imagination.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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Cavern below?

Mars has hidden depths hinted at by intriguing pits scattered around the planet. Some of these tantalizing windows may be entrances to underground caverns. If humans ever make it to Mars, they may want to consider hunkering down underground to protect themselves from space radiation.

This image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2011 shows a hole on the slopes of the Pavonis Mons volcano. "Why there is a circular crater surrounding this hole remains a topic of speculation, as is the full extent of the underlying cavern," NASA said in an image feature in 2020.

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No sarlacc here

This MRO image from 2015 shows a pit with a rocky-looking bottom.  "No Sarlacc here, we think," the MRO HiRise camera team tweeted. This was the perfect image for a Star Wars joke. No aliens were found.

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Ringed pit

This might look like a weird button you can push, but it's a ringed pit spotted by NASA's MRO in 2009

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Big as a football field

This wonderfully circular hole and others like it first showed up in images from NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft,which reached Mars in 2001. MRO later went in for a better look and produced this image in 2007. NASA estimated the hole to be about the size of a football field.

"Such holes and underground caves might be prime targets for future spacecraft, robots, and even the next generation of human interplanetary explorers," NASA said in an image release.

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Pit with channels

There's more than just a pit here. Notice the channels leading off from the edge. "The pit, which formed after the channels, exposes a bouldery layer below the dusty surface mantle and is underlain by sediments," NASA said in a release in 2017.

According to NASA, this pit and others like it may have subsurface water ice. Future human visitors will be looking for accessible water as a resource. 

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Two pits

What's better than a dark, weird pit on Mars? Two pits. 

The HiRise camera on NASA's MRO snapped these "dark rimless pits" in late 2010. "The wispy deposit may consist of dark material that has been either blown out of the pits or from some other source and scattered about by the local winds," said the HiRise team.

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Pit or impact crater?

NASA gazed at this fascinating indentation found in the south polar region of Mars in 2017 and contemplated whether it might actually be an impact crater. If it's not a crater, then it's likely a collapsed area of ground.

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Near Arsia Mons

NASA's MRO spotted this vaguely peanut-shaped pit just south of the Arsia Mons volcano. "When we image pits on Mars, we also want to look for structures related to their formation," the MRO HiRise camera team said in 2018. A wider view of the area show some more circular pits nearby.

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Swiss cheese pits

The south pole region of Mars is pretty wild. This sort of pitted landscape is nicknamed "Swiss cheese terrain" by the scientists who study it. The pits are spots where the ice cap is eroding. 

NASA's MRO HiRise camera snapped this view in 2009.

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Giant amoeba

"There is nothing more interesting than a feature that resembles a giant amoeba," the MRO HiRise camera team said in an image release in early 2019. This elongated pit is located just to the south of the red planet's equator. 

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Pit in a crater

The MRO HiRise camera team tweeted a short and sweet description to go with this wild Mars view from 2008: "Mind. Blown. A pit within an unnamed crater to the north of Rabe Crater." It's a good reminder of just how crazy the Martian landscape can get.

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Black splash

NASA's MRO stared into the abyss in January 2020 when it caught sight of this inky pit. The HiRise camera team later enhanced the brightness of the image to get a better look at what was happening down in the dark.

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A brighter pit

This side-by-side view shows the pit spotted by NASA's MRO in January 2020 on the left and the brightness-enhanced version on the right. It doesn't look quite as intimidating with the brightness turned up.

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Pit of Mars' heart

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor was really feeling the love from the red planet when it captured this picture of a heart-shaped pit in 1999. The space agency said this is "actually a pit formed by collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben."

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Chain of pits

These pits seen on the Ascraeus Mons volcano on Mars are related to each other. "Pit chains such as this are the result of collapse along fault lines. In this case, before the collapses occurred, the fault was a conduit for molten rock -- magma -- which erupted to form a suite of lava flows," NASA said in an image release in 2005.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor captured this sculptural view.

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Collapse pit

This collapse pit was shadowed by the angle of the sun when NASA's MRO snapped the picture in late 2008. "Pits like this form by collapse into underground voids, such as those left by propagating magma-filled dikes," said the HiRise camera team. Essentially, the ground underneath gives way, creating the haunting formation visible by NASA's orbiter.

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Making Mars pits

These pits formed along the flank of the Elysium Mons volcano on Mars. NASA's MRO HiRise camera team called them an important clue to the origin of some nearby valleys. "These pits form as the ground is pulled apart by Marsquakes," the team said in a 2009 image release

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In a strange land

This looks like something you might see through a macro lens. NASA's MRO caught sight of the indentation and the geometric landscape around it in 2010. It is located in an area called Utopia Rupes, 

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Bonus: Curiosity drill hole

This isn't a natural pit on Mars. It a small drill hole made by NASA's Curiosity rover in 2013. The hole's diameter is about 0.6 inch (1.6 cm), and its depth is about 2.6 inches (6.6 cm). The rover used a close-up camera to get a good look at its handiwork. 

Humans are already making a mark on Mars, just on a very small scale.

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