Experience a breathtaking journey through Mars’s mysterious “labyrinth of night” aboard Mars Express

Nestled between the colossal martian ‘Grand Canyon’ (Valles Marineris) and the tallest volcanoes in the Solar System (the Tharsis region) lies Noctis Labyrinthus – a vast system of deep and steep valleys that stretches out for around 1190 km (roughly the length of Italy here on Earth).

This fascinating landscape, captured by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) aboard ESA’s Mars Express, provides a visual flight over the eastern part of Noctis Labyrinthus. The perspective view showcases distinctive ‘graben,’ which are parts of the crust that have subsided in relation to their surroundings.

The formation of these features can be attributed to the intense volcanism in the nearby Tharsis region. This volcanism caused large areas of the martian crust to arch upwards and become stretched and tectonically stressed. Consequently, the crust thinned out, faulted, and subsided, resulting in the formation of the deep valleys and canyons seen in the video.

The highest plateaus visible represent the original surface level before chunks of surface fell away. The intersecting canyons and valleys are awe-inspiring, measuring up to 30 km wide and six km deep. One can also observe gigantic landslides covering the valley slopes and floors, providing evidence of dynamic geological processes.

Another intriguing feature visible on the valley slopes is the presence of large dune fields created by sands blown both down and upslope by martian winds. These dune fields offer insight into the atmospheric conditions and wind patterns on Mars.

ESA’s Mars Express mission has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2003, capturing images, mapping minerals, studying the atmosphere, probing beneath the crust, and exploring various phenomena within the martian environment. Noctis Labyrinthus has been a subject of interest for the mission since 2006 and 2015, with Mars Express providing valuable insights into the martian geology.

To create the video, an image mosaic was built over eight orbits by Mars Express and its HRSC. This mosaic was combined with topographic information from a digital terrain model to generate a three-dimensional landscape. Each second of the video consists of 50 separate frames rendered according to a pre-defined camera path.

The opening sequence of the video showcases a rotating full-globe view of Mars, featuring its white polar caps and mottled tan surface. It then zooms in on the westernmost part of the Valles Marineris canyon system before transitioning to a visualisation of Noctis Labyrinthus. The subsequent flight animation provides a closer look at the broken terrain, with deep intersecting valleys and canyons.

Haze has been added to the video to conceal the limits of the terrain model, gradually building up at a distance of between 150 and 200 km. This technique enhances the visual experience and creates a sense of depth.

The video is centered at the martian coordinates of 7°S, 265°E, offering viewers a unique perspective on this intriguing martian landscape.

To wrap it up, Noctis Labyrinthus serves as a testament to the dynamic geological processes that have shaped Mars’ surface. The combination of volcanism, tectonic activity, and erosional forces has given rise to this vast system of valleys and canyons. Through the images captured by Mars Express, we continue to unravel the mysteries of our neighboring planet and gain a deeper understanding of its geological history.