| by Flemming Funch|
Closeup of one of several likely openings into recently dicovered underground caverns on Mars. This one is 100 meters wide.
At its highest resolution of 25 centimeters per pixel, the HiRISE camera can see the detailed shape of the slightly scalloped edge of a hole on the flank of Mars' Arsia Mons (left), but no amount of image enhancement (right) can bring out any further details inside the hole. That means that the walls of the cave are overhanging -- the cave is larger below the ground than the entrance we can see at the surface -- and that it is very deep. Mars' dusty atmosphere produces enough scattered light that "skylight" would illuminate the floor of a shallow cavern well enough for HiRISE to detect it.
Yeah, might just be something boring, like a parking garage.
The hope for the HiRISE images was that we could see some details from inside the hole. But as you can see by the highly stretched version at right, there is absolutely nothing visible inside that hole. It's black black black black black. HiRISE is a very sensitive instrument, and Mars' dusty atmosphere scatters quite a bit of light around, so there is certainly light entering that cave hole and bouncing around the interior. But it seems that the cave is so big and so deep that almost none of the light that enters the cave comes out. It's deep, and it's big; the hole that we see really is just a skylight on a big subterranean room. How big? We'll never know for sure without visiting it, but I expect that Cushing and his coauthors and the HiRISE team will be crunching the numbers on the illumination conditions and the sensitivity of the camera to put a lower limit on how deep that cave must be for HiRISE to be able to see nothing at all inside it.
Think about that. All these orbiters at Mars, and most of them are just seeing the surface and atmosphere. To be sure, there are two instruments up there -- MARSIS on Mars Express and SHARAD on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -- that are probing the shape of the subsurface with ground-penetrating radar. But neither of those instruments have the resolution necessary to tell us what the inside of this cave looks like. It might as well be in the greatest depths of space. Here there be dragons. What's down there? Are there stalactites and stalagmites and crystals, or is it just a vast open room or tunnel?