As of 2016, Mars became the permanent residence of no less than eight robotic missions, a combination of orbiters, rovers and landers. Between extensive studies of the Martian atmosphere and surface, scientists have learned a great deal about the planet’s history and evolution. In particular, they have uncovered voluminous amounts of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface.
The most recent evidence to this effect from the University of Texas at Austin, where researchers have produced a study detailing how water deposited sediment in Mars’ Aeolis Dorsa region. According to their research, this area contains extensive sedimentary deposits that act as a historical record of Mars, cataloguing the influence played by water-based erosion over time.
The study, titled “Fluvial Stratigraphy of Valley Fills at Aeolis Dorsa, Mars: Evidence for Base-Level Fluctuations Controlled by a Downstream Water Body“, recently appeared in the scientific journal GeoScienceWorld. Led by Benjamin D. Cardenas – a geologist with the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin – the team examined satellite data of the Aeolis Dorsa region to study the structure of sedimentary deposits.
For years, Aeolis Dorsa has been of interest to scientists since it contains some of the most densely-packed sedimentary layers on Mars, which were deposited by flowing water (aka. fluvial deposits). These deposits are visible from orbit because of the way they have undergone a process known as “topographic inversion” – which consists of deposits filling low river channels, then being exhumed to create incised valleys.
By definition, incised valleys are topographic lows produced by “riverine” erosion – i.e. relating to a river or riverbank. On Earth, these valleys are commonly created by rising sea levels, and then filled with sediment as a result of falling sea levels. As sea levels rise, the valleys are cut from the landscape as the waters move inland; and as the sea levels drop, retreating waters deposit sediment within them.
According to the study, this process has created an opportunity for geophysicists and planetary scientist to observe Mars’ geological record in three dimensions and across significant distances. As Cardenas told Universe Today via email:
“Sedimentary rocks in general record information about the environments under which they were deposited. Fluvial (river) deposits specifically record information about the way rivers migrated laterally, the way they aggraded vertically, and how these things changed over time.”
Here on Earth, the statigraphy (i.e. the order and position of sedimentary layers) of sedimentary rocks has been used by geologists for generations to place constraints on what conditions were like on our planet billions of years ago. It has only been in recent history that the study of sedimentary layers has been used to place constraints on what environmental conditions were like on other planetary bodies (like Mars) billions of years ago.
However, most of these studies have produced data that has been unable to resolve sedimentary packaging at the sub-meter scale. Instead, satellite images have been used to define large-scale stratigraphic relationships, such as deposition patterns along past water channels. In other words, the studies have focused on cataloging the existence of past water flows on Mars more than what has happened since then.
As Cardenas indicated, he and his team took a different approach, one which considered that Mars has experienced changes over the past 3.5 billion years. As he explained:
“In general, there has been the assumption that a lot of the martian surface is not particularly different than it was 3.5 billion years ago. We make an effort to demonstrate that the modern surface at our study area, Aeolis Dorsa, is the result of burial, exhumation, and un-equal erosion, and it can’t be assumed that the modern surface represents the ancient surface at all. We really try to show that what we see today, the features we can measure today, are sedimentary deposits of rivers, and not actual rivers. This is incredibly important to realize when you start making interpretations of your observations, and it is frequently a missed point.”
For the sake of their research, Cardenas and his team used stereo pairs of high-resolution images and topographic data taken by the Context Camera (CTX) and the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This data was then combined with the Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (ISIS) – a digital image-processing package used by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – and NASA’s Ames Stereo Pipeline.
These processed the paired images into high-resolution topographic data and digital elevation models (DEMs) which were then compared to data from the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MSG). The final result was a series of DEMs that were orders of magnitude higher in terms of resolution than anything previously produced.
For all of this, Cardenas and his colleagues were able to identify stacking patterns in the fluvial deposits, noted changes in sedimentation styles, and suggested mechanisms for their creation. In addition, the team introduced a brand new method to measure the flow direction of the rivers that left these deposits, which allowed them to see how the landscape has changed over the past few billion years.
“The study shows there was a large body of water on Mars ~3.5 billion years ago, and that this body of water increased and decreased in volume slowly enough that river sedimentation had time to adjust styles,” said Cardenas. “This is more in line with slower climatic changes, and less in line with catastrophic hydrologic events. Aeolis Dorsa is positioned along hypothesized coastlines of an ancient northern ocean on Mars. It’s interesting to find coastal river deposits at Aeolis Dorsa, but it doesn’t help us constrain the size of the water body (lake, ocean, etc.)”
In essence, Cardenas and his colleagues concluded that – similar to Earth – falling and rising water levels in a large water body forced the formation of the paleo-valleys in their study area. And in a way that is similar to what is happening on Earth today, rivers that formed in coastal regions were strongly influenced by changes in water levels of a large, downstream water body.
For some time, it has been something of a foregone conclusion that the surface of Mars is dead, its features frozen in time. But as this study demonstrated, the landscape has undergone significant changes since it lost its atmosphere and surface water. These findings will no doubt be the subject of interest as we get closer to mounting a crewed mission to the Martian surface.
Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today’s Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.