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I'm curious about how mountains on an airless world such as the Moon would look if you were standing on the surface and looking at them. There are plenty of artists' impressions, of course, but I'm curious about whether there are any existing photographs of such a scene.

From browsing photographs of the Moon landings, there are a few surprisingly rounded-looking low hills on the horizon, but not what you'd call an actual mountain. This makes sense, since the missions targeted large flat areas where it would be safe to land. There are photographs of mountains seen from Lunar orbit, but not from the surface.

There are photographs of Mount Sharp from the Curiosity mission to Mars, but Mars has an atmosphere, and to my untrained eye Mount Sharp looks quite eroded.

So I'm wondering whether there are any such photos in existence at all - either because a probe has landed on an airless body close enough to a mountain to get a picture, or because a camera in orbit has been aimed at the horizon in order to capture a mountain range from the same angle at which it would be seen from the surface.

Alternatively, are there any mountains on Earth where (for whatever reason) erosion hasn't played a big role in shaping them so far, and which therefore look similar to the uneroded mountains one would find on an airless world?

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Some of those "rolling hills" you see on the horizon in Apollo photographs are mountains taller than the Alps. –  David Hammen Jun 15 at 10:37
Maybe look at some of the Icelandic mountains? They're pretty new in geological timescales, and I remember thinking "wow, these look sharp, pointy and uneroded" from the back of a snowmobile :-) IANA geologist, though, so I may have misread things. –  Simon W Jun 16 at 5:31

2 Answers 2

Here's how astronomers of the late 19th century thought the Moon would appear:

Recreations in Astronomy by H. D. Warren D. D., published in 1879, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selenography.

Here's what Apollo 15 astronauts saw:

Apollo 15 Lunar Module Falcon at the Hadley-Apennine landing site. Hadley Delta in the background rises approximately 4,000 meters (about 13,124 feet) above the plain. The base of the mountain is approximately 5 kilometers (about 3 statute miles) away.

Source: NASA, from Four Out of Six Apollos.

Below is a photograph of the even taller Mons Hadley, 1.1 km taller than Hadley Delta shown above:

Source: NASA, photograph as15-86-11603, from Apollo Imagery.

Compare the above with mountains on the Earth. Here's a picture of Mont Blanc, a mountain here on the Earth comparable in size to the smaller of the two lunar mountains portrayed above:

Photograph by Zoharby, taken from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Alternatively, are there any mountains on Earth where (for whatever reason) erosion hasn't played a big role in shaping them so far, and which therefore look similar to the uneroded mountains one would find on an airless world?

Nathaniel, you have a mistaken view of erosion. Erosion eventually does tear the tallest mountains down to tiny little hills. However, erosion also makes those tall mountains very jagged at first. Erosion is the primary reason why Mont Blanc and other new, tall mountains are so jagged. Liquid water seeps into cracks in the rocks and then freezes into ice. Ice has a lower density than water. This means that liquid water expands upon freezing. That expansion breaks the rock that form mountains into jagged edges.

Another reason our mountains are jagged is plate tectonics. The Earth is the only body in the solar system that exhibits plate tectonics. New continental crust forms largely from older continental crust. Erosion eventually brings particles torn from mountains to a flat area or river delta, where they collect. The material brought to those collection areas changes over time. The end result: Strata (layered rock formations). The different strata in rock have different strengths and weaknesses and thus erode differently. That differential erosion results in jagged mountains.

Bottom line: You don't see jagged mountains on the Moon or Mars because they don't have water in all three phases and because they don't have plate tectonics.

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That looks very different from the Mont Blanc I know... –  gerrit Jun 15 at 13:19
@gerrit - Which Mont Blanc do you know? This one, from the France side? Or perhaps this animated gif created by NASA? I chose the image I used because it's so nice and jagged looking. I chose it over the panoramic view from the France side because that latter view isn't quite so jagged, and I choose it over the animated gif because I am very much not a fan of animated gifs. –  David Hammen Jun 15 at 13:35
Two more that are very nice: sweclimber.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/… and science.nationalgeographic.com/wallpaper/science/photos/…. However, I'm leery of those because of potential copyright issues. The first three images I used are public domain. The Mont Blanc photo I used is not public domain, but the copyright owner does allow unrestricted usage so long as the user provides proper attribution. –  David Hammen Jun 15 at 13:44
Yes, I know the one from the French side :). The Mont Blanc massif is huge though, I wonder if people sometimes use the word Mont Blanc for other peaks in the same massif, such as Mont Blanc du Courmayeur, Mont Blanc du Tacul, etc. I thought the summit of the actual Mont Blanc was rather flat and "boring", but perhaps I'm wrong. –  gerrit Jun 15 at 18:44
I don't think your "bottom line" is quite right. Mars does have jagged mountains. The moon has smooth mountains that look like rolling hills because the erosion experienced on the moon is caused by micrometeorites and there's no wind or water to transport the resulting regolith away. This means that ejecta slowly migrates downhill (diffusive transport). –  equant Jun 18 at 5:10

As a complement to David Hammen's answer, I note that the Rosetta mission is sending back some glorious images of rocks as jagged as those on any science fiction book cover:

enter image description here

I suppose the difference is that these are on the surface of a comet, which, unlike the Moon, is geologically active.

These are hardly what you'd call mountains - the whole nucleus is only 4km long, so the features shown must be hundreds of metres in size at best. But still, I would imagine freshly formed mountains would look something like this in the absence of erosion.

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