Images of Mars taken from orbit show a massive system of riverbeds and canyons etched by water. Or maybe not. A new study of one channel shows that it was formed by lava flow and not water, and the results make “a strong case that fluid lava can produce channels that look very much like water-generated features,” said Jim Zimbelman from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, one of the researchers. “So, we should not jump to a water-related conclusion when we see such channels on other planets.”
Whether channels on Mars were formed by water or by lava has been debated for years and the outcome is thought to influence the likelihood of finding life there. Images from various Mars orbiters reveal details resembling the erosion of soil by water: terracing of channel walls, formation of small islands in a channel, hanging channels that dead-end and braided channels that branch off and then reconnect to the main branch. “These are thought to be clear evidence of fluvial [water-based] erosion on Mars,” said Jacob Bleacher from Goddard Spaceflight Center, who presented the results at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference last week.
Lava flow usually creates big, open channels, such as the ones commonly seen in Hawaii. But detailed looks at both channels on Mars and in Hawaii shed a whole new light on the formation of channels and other features on Mars.
The research team carried out a careful study of a single channel on the southwest flank of Mars’ Ascraeus Mons volcano, one of the three clustered volcanoes collectively called the Tharsis Montes. To piece together images covering more than 270 kilometers (~168 miles) of this channel, the team relied on high-resolution pictures from three cameras—the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), the Context Imager (CTX) and the High/Super Resolution Stereo Color (HRSC) imager—as well as earlier data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). These data gave a much more detailed view of the surface than previously available.
Because the fluid that formed this and other Ascraeus Mons channels is long-gone, its identity has been hard to deduce, but the visual clues at the source of the channel seem to point to water. These clues include small islands, secondary channels that branch off and rejoin the main one and eroded bars on the insides of the curves of the channels.
But at the channel’s other end, an area not clearly seen before, the team found a ridge that appears to have lava flows coming out of it. In some areas, “the channel is actually roofed over, as if it were a lava tube, and lined up along this, we see several rootless vents,” or openings where lava is forced out of the tube and creates small structures, he explains. These types of features don’t form in water-carved channels, he notes. Bleacher argues that having one end of the channel formed by water and the other end by lava is an “exotic” combination. More likely, he thinks, the entire channel was formed by lava.
To find out what kinds of features lava can produce, Bleacher, Zimbelman and W. Brent Garry examined the 51-kilometer (~32 mile) lava flow from the 1859 eruption of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. Their main focus was an island nearly a kilometer long in the middle of the channel; Bleacher says this is much larger than islands typically identified within lava flows. To survey the island, the team used differential GPS, which provides location information to within about 3 to 5 centimeters (1.1 to 1.9 inches), rather than the roughly 3 to 5 meters (9.8 to 16.4 feet) that a car’s GPS can offer.
“We found terraced walls on the insides of these channels, channels that go out and just disappear, channels that cut back into the main one, and vertical walls 9 meters (~29 feet) high,” Bleacher says. “So, right here, in something that we know was formed only by flowing lava, we found most of the features that were considered to be diagnostic of water-carved channels on Mars.”
Further evidence that such features could be created by lava flows came from the examination of a detailed image of channels from the Mare Imbrium, a dark patch on the moon that is actually a large crater filled with ancient lava rock. In this image, too, the researchers found channels with terraced walls and branching secondary channels.
The conclusion that lava probably made the channel on Mars “not only has implications for the geological evolution of the Ascraeus Mons but also the whole Tharsis Bulge [volcanic region],” says Andy de Wet, a co-author at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Penn. “It may also have some implications for the supposed widespread involvement of water in the geological evolution of Mars.”