Roughly 4.2 billion years ago, Mars was a much different place than it is today. It’s atmosphere was thicker and warmer and its surface much wetter. Unfortunately, the planet’s atmosphere was stripped away by solar wind over the next 500 million years, causing the surface to become so cold and dry that it makes Antarctica look balmy by comparison!
As a result, most of Mars’ water is currently locked away in its polar ice caps. But billions of years ago, water still flowed freely across the surface, forming ancient rivers and lakes. In fact, new research led by The University of Texas at Austin indicates that sometimes these lakes would fill so fast that they would overflow, causing massive floods that had a drastic impact on the surface.
In the summer of 2020, NASA’s Mars 2020rover will launch from Cape Canaveral and commence its journey towards the Red Planet. Once it arrives on the Martian surface, the rover will begin building on the foundation established by the Opportunity and Curiosityrovers. This will include collecting samples of Martian soil to learn more about the planet’s past and determine if life ever existed there (and still does).
Up until now, though, NASA has been uncertain as to where the rover will be landing. For the past few years, the choice has been narrowed down to three approved sites, with a fourth added earlier this year for good measure. And after three days of intense debate at the recent fourth Landing Site Workshop, scientists from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program held a non-binding vote that has brought them closer to selecting a landing site.
The possibility that life could exist on Mars has captured the imagination of researchers, scientists and writers for over a century. Ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli (and later, Percival Lowell) spotted what they believed were “Martian Canals” in the 19th century, humans have dreamed of one day sending emissaries to the Red Planet in the hopes of finding a civilization and meeting the native Martians.
While the Mariner and Viking programs of the 1960s and 70s shattered the notion of a Martian civilization, multiple lines of evidence have since emerged that indicate how life could have once existed on Mars. Thanks to a new study, which indicates that Mars may have enough oxygen gas locked away beneath its surface to support aerobic organisms, the theory that life could still exist there has been given another boost.
For some time, scientists have known that Mars was once a much warmer and wetter environment than it is today. However, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, its atmosphere was slowly stripped away, which turned the surface into the cold and desiccated place we know today. Even after multiple missions have confirmed the presence of ancient lake beds and rivers, there are still unanswered questions about how much water Mars once had.
One of the most important unanswered questions is whether or not large seas or an ocean ever existed in the northern lowlands. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the Hypanis Valles ancient river system is actually the remains of a river delta. The presence of this geological feature is an indication that this river system once emptied into an ancient Martian sea in Mars’ northern hemisphere.
According to evidence gathered by multiple robotic orbiters, rovers, and landers over the course of several decades, scientists understand that Mars was once a warmer, watery place. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this began to change. As Mars magnetic field disappeared, the atmosphere slowly began to be stripped away by solar wind, leaving the surface the cold and dry and making it impossible for water to exist in liquid form.
While much of the planet’s water is now concentrated in the polar ice caps, scientists have speculated some of Mars’ past water could still be located underground. Thanks to a new study by a team of Italian scientists, it has now been confirmed that liquid water still exists beneath Mars’ southern polar region. This discovery has put an end to a fifteen-year mystery and bolstered the potential for future missions to Mars.
So far, robotic missions have revealed considerable evidence of past water on Mars. These include dried-out river valleys and gigantic outflow channels discovered by orbiters, and evidence of mineral-rich soils that can only form in the presence of liquid water by rovers and landers. Early evidence from the ESA’s Mars Express probe has also showed that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is buried in the layers interspersed with dust.
However, scientists have long suspected that liquid water could exist beneath the polar ice caps, much in the same way that liquid water is believed to underlie glaciers here on Earth. In addition, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of subsurface water and keep it in a liquid state, despite the sub-zero temperatures present on both the surface and underground.
For many years, data from the Mars Express’Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument – which has been used to study the southern polar region – has remained inconclusive. Like all ground-penetrating radar, this instrument relies on radar pulses to map surface topography and determine the properties of the materials that lie beneath the surface.
Luckily, after considerable analysis, the study team was able to develop new techniques that allowed them to collect enough high-resolution data to confirm the presence of liquid water beneath the southern ice cap. As Andrea Cicchetti, the MARSIS operations manager and a co-author on the new paper, indicated:
“We’d seen hints of interesting subsurface features for years but we couldn’t reproduce the result from orbit to orbit, because the sampling rates and resolution of our data was previously too low. We had to come up with a new operating mode to bypass some onboard processing and trigger a higher sampling rate and thus improve the resolution of the footprint of our dataset: now we see things that simply were not possible before.”
What they found was that the southern polar region is made of many layers of ice and dust down to a depth of about 1.5 km over a 200 km-wide area, and featured an anomalous area measuring 20-km wide. As Roberto Orosei, the principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments. This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered.”
After analyzing the properties of the reflected radar signals and taking into account the composition of the layered deposits and expected temperature profiles below the surface, the scientists concluded that the 20-km wide feature is an interface between the ice and a stable body of liquid water. For MARSIS to be able to detect such a patch of water, it would need to be at least several tens of centimeters thick.
These findings also raise the possibility of there being life on Mars, both now and in the past. This is based on research that found microbial life in Lake Vostok, which is located some 4 km (2.5 mi) below the ice in Antarctica. If life can thrive in salty, subglacial environments on Earth, then it is possible that they could survive on Mars as well. Determining if this is the case will be the purpose of existing and future missions to Mars.
As Dmitri Titov, one of the Mars Express project scientist, explained:
“The long duration of Mars Express, and the exhausting effort made by the radar team to overcome many analytical challenges, enabled this much-awaited result, demonstrating that the mission and its payload still have a great science potential. This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbour planet and its habitability.”
The Mars Express launched on June 2nd, 2003, and will celebrate 15 years in orbit of Mars by December 25th this year. In the coming years, it will be joined by the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover, and a number of other scientific experiments. These missions will pave the way for a potential crewed mission, which NASA is planning to mount by the 2030s.
If there is indeed liquid water to be found on Mars, it will go a long way towards facilitating future research and even an ongoing human presence on the surface. And if there is still life on Mars, the careful research of its ecosystems will help address the all-important question of how and when life emerged in the Solar System.
Scientists first observed the Medusae Fossae Formation (MFF) in the 1960s, thanks to the efforts of the Mariner spacecraft. This massive deposit of soft, sedimentary rock extends for roughly 1,000 km (621 mi) along the equator and consists of undulating hills, abrupt mesas, and curious ridges (aka. yardangs) that appear to be the result of wind erosion. What’s more, an unusual bump on top of this formation also gave rise to a UFO conspiracy theory.
Needless to say, the formation has been a source of scientific curiosity, with many geologists attempting to explain how it could have formed. According to a new study from Johns Hopkins University, the region was the result of volcanic activity that took place on the Red Planet more than 3 billion years ago. These findings could have drastic implications for scientists’ understanding of Mars’ interior and even its past potential for habitability.
Ojha’s past work includes finding evidence that water on Mars occurs in seasonal brine flows on the surface, which he discovered in 2010 as an undergraduate student. Lewis, meanwhile, has dedicated much of his academic carreer to the in-depth study of the nature of sedimentary rock on Mars for the sake of determining what this geological record can tell us about that planet’s past climate and habitability.
As Ojha explained, the study of the Medusa Fossae Formation is central to understanding Mars geological history. Much like the Tharsus Montes region, this formation was formed at a time when the planet was still geologically active. “This is a massive deposit, not only on a Martian scale, but also in terms of the solar system, because we do not know of any other deposit that is like this,” he said.
Basically, sedimentary rock is the result of rock dust and debris accumulating on a planet’s surface and becoming hardened and layered over time. These layers serve as a geological record, indicating what types of processes where taking place on the surface at the time that the layers were deposited. When it comes to the Medusae Fossae Formation, scientists were unsure whether wind, water, ice or volcanic eruptions were responsible for the deposits.
In the past, radar measurements were made of the formation that suggested that Medusae Fosssae had an unusual composition. However, scientists were unsure whether the formation was made of highly porous rock or a mixture of rock and ice. For the sake of their study, Ojha and Lewis used gravity data from various Mars orbiters to measure the formation’s density for the first time.
What they found was that the rock is unusually porous and about two-thirds as dense as the rest of the Martian crust. They also used radar and gravity data to show that the Formation’s density was too great to be explained by the presence of ice. From this, they concluded that the heavily-porous rock had to have been deposited by volcanic eruptions when Mars was still geologically active – ca. 3 billion years ago.
As these volcanoes exploded, casting ash and rock into the atmosphere, the material would have then fallen back to the surface, building up layers and streaming down hills. After enough time, the ash would have cemented into rock, which was slowly eroded over time by Martian winds and dust storms, leaving the Formation scientists see there today. According to Ojha, these new findings suggest that Mars’ interior is more complex than previously thought.
While scientists have known for some time that Mars has some volatiles – i.e. water, carbon dioxide and other elements that become gas with slight increases in temperature – in its crust that allow for periodic explosive eruptions to occur on the surface, the kind of eruption needed to create the Medusa Fossae region would have been immense. This indicates that the planet may have massive amounts of volatiles in its interior. As Ojha explained:
“If you were to distribute the Medusae Fossae globally, it would make a 9.7-meter (32-foot) thick layer. Given the sheer magnitude of this deposit, it really is incredible because it implies that the magma was not only rich in volatiles and also that it had to be volatile-rich for long periods of time.”
In addition, this activity would have had a drastic impact on Mars’ past habitability. Basically, the formation of the Medusae Fossae Formation would have occurred during a pivotal point in Mars’ history. After the eruption occurred, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and (most likely) methane would have been ejected into the atmosphere, causing a significant greenhouse effect.
In addition, the authors indicated that the eruption would have ejected enough water to cover Mars in a global ocean more than 9 cm (4 inches) in thickness. This resulting greenhouse effect would have been enough to keep Mars’ surface warm to the point that the water would remain in a liquid state. At the same time, the expulsion of volcanic gases like hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide would have altered the chemistry of Mars’ surface and atmosphere.
All of this would have had a drastic impact on the planet’s potential habitability. What’s more, as Kevin Lewis indicated, the new study shows that gravity surveys have the potential to interpret Mars’ geological record. “Future gravity surveys could help distinguish between ice, sediments and igneous rocks in the upper crust of the planet,” he said.
Studying Mars surface features and geological history is a lot like peeling an onion. With every layer we peel back, we get another piece of the puzzle, which together adds up to a rich and varied history. In the coming years and decades, more robotic missions will be studying the Red Planet’s surface and atmosphere in preparation for an eventual crewed mission by the 2030s.
All of these missions will allow us to learn more about Mars warmer, wetter past and whether or not may have existed there at some time (or perhaps, still does!)
In fact, back in January of 2018, the rover had spent a total of 2,000 Earth days on Mars. And as of March 22nd, 2018, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover had reached its two-thousandth Martian day (Sol) on the Red Planet! To mark the occasion, NASA released a mosaic photo that previews what the rover will be investigating next (hint: it could shed further light on whether or not Mars was habitable in the past).
The image (shown at top and below) was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity‘s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sol 1931 (back in January). To the right, looming in the background, is Mount Sharp, the central peak in the Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed back in 2012). Since September of 2014, the rover has been climbing this feature and collecting drill samples to get a better understanding of Mars’ geological history.
In the center of the image is the rover’s next destination and scientific target. This area, which scientists have been studying from orbit, is rich in clay minerals, which indicates that water once existed there. In the past, the Curiosity rover found evidence of clay minerals on the floor of the Gale Crater. This confirmed that the crater was a lake bed between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years ago.
Mount Sharp, meanwhile, is believed to have formed from sedimentary material that was deposited over a period of about 2 billion years. By examining patches of clay minerals that extend up the mountain’s side, scientists hope to gain insight into the history of Mars since then. These include how long water may have persisted on its surface and how the planet made the transition to the cold and desiccated place it is today.
The Curiosity science team is eager to analyze rock samples pulled from the clay-bearing rocks seen in the center of the image, and not just because of the results they could provide. Recently, the science team developed a new drilling technique to compensate for the failure of a faulty motor (which allows the drill to extend and retract). When the rover begins to drill again, it will be the first time since December 2016.
All told, the rover has spent a total of about 2055 Earth days (5 years and 230 days), which means Curiosity now ranks third behind the Opportunity (5170 days; 5031 sols) and the Spirit rovers (2269 days; 2208 sols) in terms of total time spent on Mars. Since it arrived on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has also traveled a total distance of 18.7 km (11.6 mi) and studied more than 180 meters (600 feet) vertical feet of rock.
But above all, Curiosity‘s greatest achievement has been the discovery that Mars once had all the necessary conditions and chemical ingredients to support microbial life. Based on their findings, Curiosity‘s international science team has concluded that habitable conditions must have lasted for at least millions of years before Mars’ atmosphere was stripped away.
Finding the evidence of this, and how the transition occurred, will not only advance our understanding of the history of Mars, but of the Solar System itself. It also might provide clues as to how Mars could be made into a warmer, wetter environment again someday!
Thanks to the many missions that have been studying Mars in recent years, scientists are aware that roughly 4 billion years ago, the planet was a much different place. In addition to having a denser atmosphere, Mars was also a warmer and wetter place, with liquid water covering much of the planet’s surface. Unfortunately, as Mars lost its atmosphere over the course of hundreds of millions of years, these oceans gradually disappeared.
When and where these oceans formed has been the subject of much scientific inquiry and debate. According to a new study by a team of researchers from UC Berkeley, the existence of these oceans was linked to the rise of the Tharis volcanic system. They further theorize that these oceans formed several hundred millions years earlier than expected and were not as deep as previously thought.
As Michael Manga explained in a recent Berkeley News press release:
“The assumption was that Tharsis formed quickly and early, rather than gradually, and that the oceans came later. We’re saying that the oceans predate and accompany the lava outpourings that made Tharsis.”
The debate over the size and extent of Mars’ past oceans is due to some inconsistencies that have been observed. Essentially, when Mars lost its atmosphere, its surface water would have frozen to become underground permafrost or escaped into space. Those scientists who don’t believe Mars once had oceans point to the fact that the estimates of how much water could have been hidden away or lost is not consistent with estimates on the oceans’ sizes.
What’s more, the ice that is now concentrated in the polar caps is not enough to create an ocean. This means that either less water was present on Mars than previous estimates indicate, or that some other process was responsible for water loss. To resolve this, Citron and his colleagues created a new model of Mars where the oceans formed before or at the same time as Mars’ largest volcanic feature – Tharsis Montes, roughly 3.7 billion years ago.
Since Tharsis was smaller at the time, it did not cause the same level of crustal deformation that it did later. This would have been especially true of the plains that cover most the northern hemisphere and are believed to have been an ancient seabed. Given that this region was not subject to the same geological change that would have come later, it would have been shallower and held about half the water.
“The assumption was that Tharsis formed quickly and early, rather than gradually, and that the oceans came later,” said Manga. “We’re saying that the oceans predate and accompany the lava outpourings that made Tharsis.”
In addition, the team also theorized that the volcanic activity that created Tharsis may have been responsible for the formation of Mars’ early oceans. Basically, the volcanoes would have spewed gases and volcanic ash into the atmosphere that would have led to a greenhouse effect. This would have warmed the surface to the point that liquid water could form, and also created underground channels that allowed water to reach the northern plains.
Their model also counters other previous assumptions about Mars, which are that its proposed shorelines are very irregular. Essentially, what is assumed to have been “water front” property on ancient Mars varies in height by as much as a kilometer; whereas on Earth, shorelines are level. This too can be explained by the growth of the Tharsis volcanic region, roughly 3.7 billion years ago.
Using current geological data of Mars, the team was able to trace how the irregularities we see today could have formed over time. This would have began when Mars first ocean (Arabia) started forming 4 billion years ago and was around to witness the first 20% of Tharsis Montes growth. As the volcanoes grew, the land became depressed and the shoreline shifted over time.
Similarly, the irregular shorelines of a subsequent ocean (Deuteronilus) can be explained by this model by indicating that it formed during the last 17% of Tharsis’ growth – roughly 3.6 billion years ago. The Isidis feature, which appears to be an ancient lakebed slightly removed from the Utopia shoreline, could also be explained this way. As the ground deformed, Isidis ceased being part of the northern ocean and became a connected lakebed.
“These shorelines could have been emplaced by a large body of liquid water that existed before and during the emplacement of Tharsis, instead of afterwards,” said Citron. This is certainly consistent with the observable effect that Tharsis Mons has had on the topography of Mars. It’s bulk not only creates a bulge on the opposite side of the planet (the Elysium volcanic complex), but a massive canyon system in between (Valles Marineris).
This new theory not only explains why previous estimates about the volume of water in the northern plains were inaccurate, it can also account for the valley networks (cut by flowing water) that appeared around the same time. And in the coming years, this theory can be tested by the robotic missions NASA and other space agencies are sending to Mars.
Consider NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which is scheduled for launch in May, 2018. Once it reaches Mars, this lander will use a suite of advanced instruments – which includes a seismometer, temperature probe and radio science instrument – to measure Mars interior and learn more about its geological activity and history.
Among other things, NASA anticipates that InSight might detect the remains of Mars’ ancient ocean frozen in the interior, and possibly even liquid water. Alongside the Mars 2020 rover, the ExoMars 2020, and eventual crewed missions, these efforts are expected to provide a more complete picture of Mars past, which will include when major geological events took place and how this could have affected the planet’s ocean and shorelines.
The more we learn about what happened on Mars over the past 4 billion years, the more we learn about the forces that shaped our Solar System. These studies also go a long way towards helping scientists determine how and where life-bearing conditions can form. This (we hope) will help us locate life it in another star system someday!
On August 5th, 2012, after spending over 8 months in space, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. As part of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, and the latest in a series of rovers deployed to the Martian surface, Curiosity had some rather ambitious research goals. In addition to investigating Mars’ climate and geology, the rover was also tasked with revealing more about Mars’ past and determining if it ever supported microbial life.
And recently, the Curiosity rover hit another major milestone in its exploration of the Red Planet. As of January 26th, 2018 the rover has spent a total of 2,000 days on Mars, which works out to 5 years, 5 months and 21 days – or 1947 Martian days (sols). That’s especially impressive when you consider that the mission was only meant to last 687 days (668 sols), or just little under 2 years.
In all that time, the Curiosity rover has accomplished some major feats and has the scars to prove it! Some of it’s wheels have become teared, holed and cracked and its drill has been pushed almost to the point of breaking. And yet, Curiosity is still hard at work pushing itself up a mountain – both literally and figuratively! The rover has also managed to exceed everyone’s expectations.
As Ashwin Vasavada, the MSL Project Scientist, told Universe Today via email:
“In terms of challenges, the first 2000 days of Curiosity’s mission went better than I could have hoped. For much of the time, the rover remained as capable as the day it landed. We had a scare in the first year when a memory fault triggered additional problems and nearly resulted in the loss of the mission. We famously wore down our wheels pretty early, as well, but since then we’ve kept that under control. In the last year, we’ve had a major problem with our drill. That’s the only major issue currently, but we believe we’ll be back to drilling in a month or so. If that works out, we’ll amazingly be back to having all systems ready for science!”
As of the penning of this article, the rover is climbing Mount Sharp in order to collect further samples from Mars’ past. Also known as Aeolis Mons, this mountain resides in the center of the Gale Crater where Curiosity landed in 2012 and has been central to Curiosity’s mission. Standing 5,500 meters (18,000 ft) above the valley floor, Mount Sharp is believed to have formed from sediment that was slowly deposited by flowing water over billions of years.
This is all in keeping with current theories about how Mars once had a denser atmosphere and was able to sustain liquid water on its surface. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind, thus turning Mars into the cold and desiccated place that we know today. As a result, the study of Mount Sharp was always expected to reveal a great deal about Mars’ geological evolution.
In it’s first year, Curiosity achieved a major milestone when the rover obtained drill samples from low-lying areas that indicated that lakes and streams existed in the Gale Crater between 3.3 to 3.8 billion years ago. In addition, the rover has also obtained ample evidence that the crater once had all the chemical elements and even a chemical source of energy needed for microbial life to exist.
“NASA’s charge to our mission was to determine whether Mars ever had conditions suitable for life,” said Vasavada. “Success was not a foregone conclusion. Would we arrive safely? Would the scientific instruments work? Would the area we chose for the landing site hold the clues we were looking for? For me, meeting each of these objectives are the highlights of the mission. I’ll never forget witnessing the launch, or nervously waiting for a safe touchdown. Discovering an ancient, freshwater lake environment at Gale crater was profound scientifically, but also was the moment that I knew that our team had delivered what we promised to NASA.”
Basically, by scaling Mount Sharp and examining the layers that were deposited over the course of billions of years, Curiosity is able to examine a living geological record of how the planet has evolved since then. Essentially, the lower layers of the mountain are believed to have been deposited 3.5 billion years ago when the Gale Crater was still a lakebed, as evidenced by the fact that they are rich in clay minerals.
The upper layers, meanwhile, are believed to have been deposited over the ensuing millions of years, during which time the lake in the Gale Crater appears to have grown, shrunk, disappeared and then reappeared. Basically, by scaling the mountain and obtaining samples, Curiosity will be able to illustrate how Mars underwent the transition from being a warmer, wetter place to a frozen and dry one.
As Vasavada explained, this exploration is also key to answering a number of foundational questions about the search for life beyond Earth:
“Curiosity established that Mars was once a suitable home for life; it had liquid water, key chemical building blocks, and energy sources required by life in the lake and groundwater environment within Gale crater. Curiosity also has detected organic molecules in ancient rocks, in spite of all the degradation that could have occurred in three billion years. While Curiosity cannot detect life itself, knowing that Mars can preserve organic molecules bodes well for missions that will explore ancient rocks, looking for signs of past life.”
At this juncture, its not clear how much longer Curiosity will last. Considering that it has already lasted over twice as long as originally intended, it is possible the rover will remain in operation for years to come. However, unlike the Opportunity rover – who’s mission was intended to last for 90 days, but has remained in operation for 5121 days (4984 sols) – Curiosity has a shelf life.
Whereas Opportunity is powered by solar cells, Curiosity is dependent on its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). Eventually, this slow-fission reactor will exhaust its supply of nuclear fuel and the rover will be forced to come to a halt. And considering how the rover has been put through its paces in the past 5 years, there’s also the chance that it will suffer a mechanical failure.
But in the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done and lots of opportunities for vital research. As Vasavada put it:
“Curiosity won’t last forever, but in the years we have left, I hope we can complete our traverse through the lowermost strata on Mount Sharp. We’re well over halfway through. There are changes in the composition of the rocks ahead that might tell us how the climate of Mars changed over time, perhaps ending the era of habitability. Every day on Mars still counts, perhaps even more than before. Now every new discovery adds a piece to a puzzle that’s more than halfway done; it reveals more given all the other pieces already around it.”
And be sure to check out this retrospective of the Curiosity rover’s mission, courtesy of NASA:
When robotic missions first began to land on the surface of Mars in the 1970s, they revealed a harsh, cold and desiccated landscape. This effectively put an end generations of speculation about “Martian canals” and the possibility of life on Mars. But as our efforts to explore the Red Planet have continued, scientists have found ample evidence that the planet once had flowing water on its surface.
In addition, scientists have been encouraged by the appearance of Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), which were believed to be signs of seasonal water flows. Unfortunately, a new study by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that these features may be the result of dry, granular flows. These findings are another indication that the environment could be too dry for microorganisms to survive.
For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from the High Resolution Image Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This same instrument was responsible for the 2011 discovery of RSL, which were found in the middle latitudes of Mars’ southern hemisphere. These features were also observed to appear on Martian slopes during late spring through summer and then fade away in winter.
The seasonal nature of these flows was seen as a strong indication that they were the result of flowing salt-water, which was indicated by the detection of hydrated salt at the sites. However, after re-examining the HiRISE data, Dundas and his team concluded that RSLs only occur on slopes that are steep enough for dry grains to descend – in much the same way that they would on the faces of active dunes.
“We’ve thought of RSL as possible liquid water flows, but the slopes are more like what we expect for dry sand. This new understanding of RSL supports other evidence that shows that Mars today is very dry.”
Using pairs of images from HiRISE, Dundas and his colleagues constructed a series of 3-D models of slope steepness. These models incorporated 151 RSL features identified by the MRO at 10 different sites. In almost all cases, they found that the RSL were restricted to slopes that were steeper than 27° and each flow ended on a slope that matched the patterns seen in slumping dry sand dunes on Mars and Earth.
Basically, sand flows end where a steep angle gives way to a less-steep “angle of repose”, whereas liquid water flows are known to extend along less steep slopes. As Alfred McEwen, HiRISE’s Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the study, indicated, “The RSL don’t flow onto shallower slopes, and the lengths of these are so closely correlated with the dynamic angle of repose, it can’t be a coincidence.”
These observations is something of a letdown, since the presence of liquid water in Mars’ equatorial region was seen as a possible indication of microbial life. However, compared to seasonal brine flows, the present of granular flows is a far better fit with what is known of Mars’ modern environment. Given that Mars’ atmosphere is very thin and cold, it was difficult to ascertain how liquid water could survive on its surface.
Nevertheless, these latest findings do not resolve all of the mystery surrounding RSLs. For example, there remains the question of how exactly these numerous flows begin and gradually grow, not to mention their seasonal appearance and the way they rapidly fade when inactive. On top of that, there is the matter of hydrated salts, which have been confirmed to contain traces of water.
To this, the authors of the study offer some possible explanations. For example, they indicate that salts can become hydrated by pulling water vapor from the atmosphere, which might explain why patches along the slopes experience changes in color. They also suggest that seasonal changes in hydration might result in some trigger mechanism for RSL grainflows, where water is absorbed and release, causing the slope to collapse.
If atmospheric water vapor is a trigger, then it raises another important question – i.e. why do RSLs appear on some slopes and not others? As Alfred McEwen – HiRISE’s Principal Investigator and a co-author on the study – explained, this could indicate that RSLs on Mars and the mechanisms behind their formation may not be entirely similar to what we see here on Earth.
“RSL probably form by some mechanism that is unique to the environment of Mars,” he said, “so they represent an opportunity to learn about how Mars behaves, which is important for future surface exploration.” Rich Zurek, the MRO Project Scientist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agrees. As he explained,
“Full understanding of RSL is likely to depend upon on-site investigation of these features. While the new report suggests that RSL are not wet enough to favor microbial life, it is likely that on-site investigation of these sites will still require special procedures to guard against introducing microbes from Earth, at least until they are definitively characterized. In particular, a full explanation of how these enigmatic features darken and fade still eludes us. Remote sensing at different times of day could provide important clues.”
In the coming years, NASA plans to carry out the exploration of several sites on the Martian surface using the Mars 2020 rover, which includes a planned sample-return mission. These samples, after being collected and stored by the rover, are expected to be retrieved by a crewed mission mounted sometime in the 2030s, and then returned to Earth for analysis.
The days when we are finally able to study the Mars’ modern environment up close are fast approaching, and is expected to reveal some pretty Earth-shattering things!