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Looking like space slug hidey-holes, huge pits gouge a bright, dusty plain near the Martianvolcano Ascraeus Mons in a picture taken between October 1 and November 1 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
Released in December, the image is among a series of new views snapped by MRO's HiRISE camera that show intriguing geological features on Mars. Each image covers a strip of Martian ground 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) wide and can reveal a detail about as small as a desk—and so far no sign of Star Wars monsters.
MRO's sister orbiter, Mars Odyssey, first noticed the two deep pits—which are about 590 feet (180 meters) and 1,017 feet (310 meters), respectively—a year earlier using its infrared camera, THEMIS
A sharp close-up of the the larger Martian pit revealed sediment and boulders (seen in a picture taken in fall 2010 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera), as well as hints of sand that was blown inside and trapped in the deepest and darkest parts of the hole, according to NASA. The holes are believed to be vertical shafts that cut through lava flows along the edges of the Ascraeus volcano. Similar features called pit craters—the result of the ground collapsing above a void—can be found on Hawaii's volcanoes
Mud volcanoes—which also exist on Earth—form when wet, pressurized sediment buried at depth erupts onto the surface. The Martian mud volcanoes might be prime targets in the search for past life on the red planet, according to NASA. "If this mud is produced at depth, it could have brought up organic materials that may show biosignatures of some sort of ancient life on Mars," principal investigator McEwen said.