Bird’s-eye view of the largest canyon in the solar system

Stunning bird’s-eye view of Valles Marineris, from the Mars Express spacecraft.
Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The huge Grand Canyon is one of the greatest natural wonders on Earth, offering a glimpse into our planet’s dynamic geological history. But there is another canyon that is even larger, much larger – on Mars.

Valles Marineris looks like a giant scar on Mars’ surface, cutting across the terrain for over 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles), ten times longer than the Grand Canyon. At about 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) deep, it is also five times deeper than the Grand Canyon. It is the largest known canyon system in the solar system.

The size is especially notable given that Mars is only about half the size of Earth.

In a recently-released image from the Mars Express spacecraft, the sheer scale and beauty of this gigantic canyon system can be seen (previously published in 2009 but now online for the first time). It is composed of images taken during 20 orbits by the spacecraft and is in near-true colour with four times vertical exaggeration.

Like with canyons on Earth, there is a long and complex geological history here, including volcanic activity, faults, landslides and flowing water. Not far to the west of Valles Marineris is Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system, and one of four huge volcanoes on the Tharsis bulge, a huge raised area on the Martian surface thought to have been formed by upwelling magma early in Mars’ history.

If we ever colonize Mars, Valles Marineris could become the ultimate sight-seeing destination!

Larger versions of the image are available here.

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