Since they were first observed in the 1970s by the Viking missions, the slope streaks that periodically appear along slopes on Mars have continued to intrigue scientists. After years of study, scientists still aren’t sure exactly what causes them. While some believe that “wet” mechanisms are the culprit, others think they are the result of “dry” mechanisms.
Luckily, improvements in high-resolution sensors and imaging capabilities – as well as improved understanding of Mars’ seasonal cycles – is bringing us closer to an answer. Using a terrestrial analog from Bolivia, a research team from Sweden recently conducted a study that explored the mechanisms for streak formation and suggest that wet mechanisms appear to account for more, which could have serious implications for future missions to Mars.
Mars modern landscape is something of a paradox. It’s many surface features are very similar to those on Earth that are caused by water-borne erosion. But for the life of them, scientists cannot imagine how water could have flown on Mars’ cold and desiccated surface for most of Mars’ history. Whereas Mars was once a warmer, wetter place, it has had a very thin atmosphere for billions of years now, which makes water flow and erosion highly unlikely.
In fact, while the surface of Mars periodically becomes warm enough to allow for ice to thaw, liquid water would boil once exposed to the thin atmosphere. However, in a new study led by an international team of researchers from the UK, France and Switzerland, it has been determined that a different kind of transport process involving the sublimation of water ice could have led to the Martian landscape becoming what it is today.
The study, which was led Dr. Jan Raack – a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at The Open University – was recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Titled “Water Induced Sediment Levitation Enhances Downslope Transport on Mars”, this research study consisted of experiments that tested how processes on Mars’ surface could allow water transport without it being in liquid form.
To conduct their experiments, the team used the Mars Simulation Chamber, an instrument at The Open University that is capable of simulating the atmospheric conditions on Mars. This involved lowering the atmospheric pressure inside the chamber to what is normal for Mars – about 7 mbar, compared to 1000 mbar (1 bar or 100 kilopascals) here on Earth – while also adjusting temperatures.
On Mars, temperatures range from a low of -143 °C (-255 °F) during winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) at the equator during midday in the summer. Having recreated these conditions, the team found that when water ice exposed to the simulated Martian atmosphere, it would not simply melt. Instead, it would become unstable and begin violently boiling off.
However, the team also found that this process would be capable of moving large amounts of sand and sediment, which would effectively “levitate” on the boiling water. This means that, compared to Earth, relatively small amounts of liquid water are capable of moving sediment across the surface of Mars. These levitating pockets of sand and debris would be capable of forming tje large dunes, gullies, recurring slope lineae, and other features observed on Mars.
In the past, scientists have indicated how these features were the result of sediment transportation down slopes, but were unclear as to the mechanisms behind them. As Dr. Jan Raack explained in a OUNews press release:
“Our research has discovered that this levitation effect caused by boiling water under low pressure enables the rapid transport of sand and sediment across the surface. This is a new geological phenomenon, which doesn’t happen on Earth, and could be vital to understanding similar processes on other planetary surfaces.”
Through these experiments, Dr. Raack and his colleagues were able to shed light on how conditions on Mars could allow for features that we tend to associate with flowing water here on Earth. In addition to helping to resolve a somewhat contentious debate concerning Mars’ geological history and evolution, this study is also significant when it comes to future exploration missions.
Dr. Raack acknowledges the need for more research to confirm their study’s conclusions, and indicated that the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 Rover will be well-situated to conduct it once it is deployed :
“This is a controlled laboratory experiment, however, the research shows that the effects of relatively small amounts of water on Mars in forming features on the surface may have been widely underestimated. We need to carry out more research into how water levitates on Mars, and missions such as the ESA ExoMars 2020 Rover will provide vital insight to help us better understand our closest neighbour.”
They are headed toward the surface like a speeding freight train… and running ahead of them is a shockwave. Just like a loud sound can trigger a snow avalanche here on Earth, the shockwave of a meteorite crashing through the Martian atmosphere could trigger dust avalanches on the surface before an actual impact.
According to a study led by University of Arizona undergraduate student, Kaylan Burleigh, there is sufficient photographic evidence to prove that incoming meteorites are producing enough energy to impact the surface environment just as much as the strike. Mars’ thin atmosphere also contributes, since the lesser density means most meteorites survive the trip to the surface. “We expected that some of the streaks of dust that we see on slopes are caused by seismic shaking during impact,” said Burleigh. “We were surprised to find that it rather looks like shockwaves in the air trigger the avalanches even before the impact.”
Spotting new craters happens frequently. Thanks to the HiRISE camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers find up to twenty newly formed craters that measure between 1 and 50 meters (3 to 165 feet) each year. To perform their study, the team focused their attention on a grouping of five craters which formed at the same time. This quintuplet is located near the Martian equator, about 825 kilometers (512 miles) south of the boundary scarp of Olympus Mons. Earlier investigations of the area had revealed dark streaks which were surmised at the time to be landslides, but no one thought to credit them to an impact theory. The largest crater in the cluster measures 22 meters, or 72 feet across and the multiple formation is thought to have occurred due to a shattering of the meteor just ahead of final impact.
“The dark streaks represent the material exposed by the avalanches, as induced by the airblast from the impact,” Burleigh said. “I counted more than 100,000 avalanches and, after repeated counts and deleting duplicates, arrived at 64,948.”
As Burleigh took a closer look at the distribution of avalanches around the impact site, he noticed a lot of relative things, but the most important was a curved formation described as scimitars. This was a major clue as to how they were formed. “Those scimitars tipped us off that something other than seismic shaking must be causing the dust avalanches,” Burleigh said.
Just as a freight train sends a rumble before it arrives, so does the incoming meteor. By using computer modeling, the team was able to simulate how a shockwave could form and match the scimatar patterns to the HiRISE images. “We think the interference among different pressure waves lifts up the dust and sets avalanches in motion. These interference regions, and the avalanches, occur in a reproducible pattern,” Burleigh said. “We checked other impact sites and realized that when we see avalanches, we usually see two scimitars, not just one, and they both tend to be at a certain angle to each other. This pattern would be difficult to explain by seismic shaking.”
Because there are no plate tectonics, nor water erosion issues, these types of findings are very important to understanding how many Martian surface features are formed. “This is one part of a larger story about current surface activity on Mars, which we are realizing is very different than previously believed,” said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator of the HiRISE project and one of the co-authors of the study. “We must understand how Mars works today before we can correctly interpret what may have happened when the climate was different, and before we can draw comparisons to Earth.”