In the mood for an interplanetary adventure and just happen to have a pair of 3D glasses handy? You're in luck. The European Space Agency just released a 3D flight simulation over one of Mars's most mysterious features: its "chaos terrain."
Video: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
Where most animated flyovers deal in pure space fantasy, this one has an eerie verisimilitude. It's based on real images and maps taken by the ESA's Mars Express, and the 3D approach adds a lot to the experience too. Watching these bizarre geological features pop out from the screen hits home how utterly alien they are. Nothing like chaos terrain exists on Earth (though it would make a great band name).
There is still a lot of debate over what formed these anarchic stretches of mesas, buttes, and valleys, but the prevailing theory has to do with Martian water. In the planet's early history, large deposits of ice may have been compressed into underground cavities. Volcanism, bolide impacts, and other thermal disruptions may have warmed the deposits, resulting in violent liquid water eruptions from surface fault zones.
Chaos terrain could be the result of this powerful explosion and voluminous outflow of water, which carved unpredictable formations into the landscape. This theory is supported by the patch of terrain spotlighted in the video, called Hydraotes Chaos. Located on the eastern edge of the Valles Marineras, the region was likely a part of a massive water system some 3.5 billion years ago. The fact that some of the Hydraotes Choas' mesas haven't collapsed suggests that water ice may still be locked up underneath much of the landscape.
Though Mars has the largest swaths of chaos terrain of any of our solar siblings, it isn't the only world pockmarked with the idiosyncratic formations. The surface of the Jovian moon Europa—home to hypothetical alien whales—is about 25 percent chaotic terrain. The most iconic region with these formations is called Conamara Chaos, and it's one of the biggest pieces of evidence that Europa hosts a subsurface ocean. Though the dynamics are different, the landscape is thought to have formed more or less in the same way as Martian chaos terrain, with water and ice being released in pressurized bursts on the surface.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling origin story, however, belongs to Mercury's chaos terrain. It's located on the exact opposite side of the planet from the Caloris Basin, which was smashed into the planet about four billion years ago by an object at least 100 kilometers in diameter.
The impact was so devastating that researchers think seismic waves actually rippled through the planet and converged on the other side, creating Mercury's sole patch of chaos terrain. If that doesn't make you want to be an armchair planetary scientist, nothing will.
Hopefully, ESA will follow up on this video by producing other vicarious voyages into obscure extraterrestrial regions. They're a great reminder that our solar system—let alone the universe beyond—is home to wonders, mysteries, and planetary punch-ups so disastrous, they can warp landscapes clear through a planet.