The Grand Canyon is majestic, but it isn’t the largest canyon you can see -- not by a longshot.
The largest canyon in our solar system is Valles Marineris, on the planet Mars. And while you obviously can’t visit the canyon in person, you can look at incredibly detailed pictures, such as this one, thanks to scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona.
What Is Valles Marineris?
Valles Marineris, which means Mariner Valley, is a system of canyons running along Mars’ equator for more than 2,500 miles -- spanning nearly a quarter of the planet’s circumference, according to NASA.
It also reaches depths of up to four miles. For comparison, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is approximately 500 miles long and roughly one mile deep.
To help put this in perspective, if Valles Marineris -- and its western extension, Noctis Labyrinthus, the Labyrinth of Night -- were placed in the U.S., it would reach from New York City all the way to San Francisco, Mars Education at Arizona State University explains.
The canyon is also as deep as some of the deepest trenches at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.
How Was Valles Marineris Formed?
It’s estimated that the Grand Canyon was formed -- or began to be formed -- sometime between five and six million years ago as the Colorado River carved a channel through rock. Valles Marineris, on the other hand, probably isn’t the result of rushing water carving through stone because Mars is a hot and dry planet, the European Space Agency explains.
Instead, it seems likely that the canyon’s formation is linked to a nearby group of volcanoes, known as the Tharsis region, which was formed billions of years ago, the European Space Agency notes. As magma rose under these giant volcanoes -- including Olympus Mons, which is the largest volcano in our solar system -- the surrounding planetary crust easily could have “stretched, ripped apart, and finally collapsed” to form the enormous troughs and valleys of Valles Marineris.
How Are Pictures Even Possible?
Scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona use a special camera, called HiRISE (short for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Positioned aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the 143-pound, five-foot-long camera has a telescopic lens so it can take high-resolution images -- even from altitudes ranging from 125 miles to 250 miles above Mars, according to NASA.
These high-resolution images even allow scientists to see kitchen table-sized objects so they can better study “layered materials, gullies, channels, and other science targets, in addition to characterizing possible future landing sites,” NASA explains.
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