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Haunting Mars view reveals dust devil tracks and chaotic mounds

Mars looks like a giant cat sharpened its claws on the surface.

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The ESA and Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter captured this view of Argyre Planitia. The colors have been processed to make features such as the scratchlike dust devil tracks stand out.
ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

Otherworldly. Chaotic. The European Space Agency (ESA) laid down some fitting words to describe a Martian scene imaged by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a spacecraft in residence at the red planet. The view shows part of the plains area Argyre Planitia. It's a landscape marked by wind action and wild terrain.

The scratchlike marks are signs of Mars' windy tendencies. "Perhaps the most striking feature here is the wispy, snaking tendrils stretching out across the frame," said ESA in a statement on Friday. "These dark traces of past activity were caused by dust devils, whirlwinds of dust that occur on both Mars and Earth when warm air rises quickly into cooler air." 

The image came from TGO's Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) camera on Feb. 1. It's processed to highlight the mineralogy of the surface, so those dust devil tracks wouldn't actually pop out in blue if you were looking at the landscape in person.  

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This zoomed-in view of the ExoMars TGO image highlights the trails of dust devils in blue.

ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

The overall scene reminds ESA of a type of Martian landscape called "chaotic terrain" that's notable for irregular surface features, depressions and a generally disorganized appearance. This particular part of Mars isn't officially considered chaotic terrain, but it's making a case for fitting the description.

TGO is a joint project from ESA and Russian space agency Roscosmos. While the orbiter is moonlighting as a landscape photographer, its main tasks involve investigating Mars' atmospheric gases and scouting the surface for water. TGO is part of a larger ExoMars program that'll include the launch of a rover to the red planet later this year. That means we can look forward to some ExoMars views coming from ground level, too.