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Mystery of Mars Polar Pinwheel Unraveled

·1 min

Something strange has happened to Mars’s polar ice cap. Instead of a uniform, roughly circular blob, like on Earth, the Martian version resembles a pinwheel (left), with dry, spiral troughs separating the ice sheets. There’s also Chasma Boreale, the deep, dagger-shaped gouge that cuts across the pinwheel. Scientists had thought that the canyon, which is 2 kilometers deep, was carved by some catastrophic flood in the distant past. Now in two papers published tomorrow in Nature, researchers think they have solved both mysteries. Using a radar survey of the pole (right), which peered under the ice, they conclude that Chasma Boreale wasn’t dug out at all. Instead, Martian winds built up the steep, canyon-like walls over millions of years. As for the pinwheel, the team reports that it likewise formed over many millennia, as strong winds pushed apart the dry ice crystals on the surface, much like winds on Earth create sand dunes.