The High Resolution Imagine Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has already discovered that the Red Planet is a true nerd. From the appearance of the Star Trek logo on the bottom of a giant crater, to the formation of Game of Thrones’ House Stark Direwolf sigil by dry dust avalanches. A new addition to this list is the "dragon" found hidden in part of Mars’ grand canyon system, Valles Marineris, which stretches along the planet’s equator.
Designed and operated by the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona, HiRISE is the most powerful camera ever sent to another planet. With a high-resolution capability of up to 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) per pixel, the camera has been sending back data since 2006 and has covered over 2.4 percent of the Martian surface. One area repeatedly imaged is Melas Chasma – the widest segment of the Valles Marineris canyon system.
From an image taken 258 kilometers (160 miles) above southwestern Melas Chasma in 2007, a portion of the Martian wall rock and canyon floor appears to have formed a "dragon". In the picture, the light brown canyon floor is littered with unusual blocky deposits, which vary in size between 100 to 500 meters (328 to 1640 feet) in diameter. Their morphologies also differ somewhat.
Whilst most appear rounded, some have angular edges and can be very elongated, which according to Cathy Weitz, from the University of Arizona, is evidence for ductile deformation. Here, instead of breaking, the rock has been shaped, likely from a flow or by a tectonic disruption after it became situated in the canyon floor.
In fact, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in 2017, “there is evidence of both water and wind action as modes of formation for many of the interior deposits” in Melas Chasma. Indeed, the ripples that you can see in the darker matrix surrounding the “dragon” are due to wind. The distribution of the blocks, observed solely along the canyon floor and in other valleys (like those near the bottom of the image), further suggests that “they were either deposited or have been exposed by erosion” from wind or water.
As the MRO continues to orbit Mars, who knows what sci-fi or mythical symbols we may see next.