Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Gullies on Mars show tantalizing signs of recent water activity

Planetary geologists at Brown University have found a gully fan system on Mars that formed about 1.25 million years ago. The fan offers compelling evidence that it was formed by melt water that originated in nearby snow and ice deposits and may stand as the most recent period when water flowed on the planet.

Gullies are known to be young surface features on Mars. But scientists studying the planet have struggled with locating gullies they can conclusively date. In a paper that appears on the cover of the March issue of Geology, the Brown geologists were able to date the gully system and hypothesize what water was doing there.

The gully system in the Promethei Terra region of Mars appears to have been carved by melt water and may be the most recent period when water was active on the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The gully system shows four intervals where water-borne sediments were carried down the steep slopes of nearby alcoves and deposited in alluvial fans, said Samuel Schon, a Brown graduate student and the paper's lead author.

"You never end up with a pond that you can put goldfish in," Schon said, "but you have transient melt water. You had ice that typically sublimates. But in these instances it melted, transported, and deposited sediment in the fan. It didn't last long, but it happened."

The finding comes on the heels of discoveries of water-bearing minerals such as opals and carbonates, the latter of which was announced by Brown graduate student Bethany Ehlmann in a paper in Science in December. Those discoveries build on evidence that Mars was occasionally wet far longer than many had believed, and that the planet may have hosted a warm, wet environment in some places during its long history.

However, the finding of a gully system, even an isolated one, that supported running water as recently as 1.25 million years ago greatly extends the time that water may have been active on Mars. It also adds to evidence of a recent ice age on the planet when polar ice is believed to have been transported towards the equator and settled in mid-latitude deposits, said James Head III, professor of geological sciences at Brown, who first approximated the span of the martian ice age in a Nature paper in 2003.

"We think there was recent water on Mars," said Head, who with Brown postdoctoral researcher Caleb Fassett is a contributing author on the paper. "This is a big step in the direction to proving that."

The gully system is located on the inside of a crater in Promethei Terra, an area of cratered highlands in the southern mid-latitudes. The eastern and western channels of the gully each run less than a kilometer from their alcove sources to the fan deposit.

Viewed from afar, the fan appears as one entity several hundred meters wide. But by zooming in with the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Schon was able to distinguish four individual lobes in the fan, and determine that each lobe was deposited separately. Moreover, Schon was able to identify the oldest lobe, because it was pockmarked with small craters, while the other lobes were unblemished, meaning they had to be younger.

Next came the task of trying to date the secondary craters in the fan. Schon linked the craters on the oldest lobe to a rayed crater more than 80 kilometers to the southwest. Using well-established techniques, Schon dated the rayed crater at about 1.25 million years, and so established a maximum age for the younger, superimposed lobes of the fan.

The team determined that ice and snow deposits formed in the alcoves at a time when Mars had a high obliquity (its most recent ice age) and ice was accumulating in the mid-latitude regions. Sometime around a half-million years ago, the planet's obliquity changed, and the ice in the mid-latitudes began to melt or, in most instances, changed directly to vapor. Mars has been in a low-obliquity cycle ever since, which explains why no exposed ice has been found beyond the poles.

The team tested other theories of what the water may have been doing in the gully system. The scientists ruled out groundwater bubbling to the surface, Schon said, because it seemed unlikely to have occurred multiple times in the planet's recent history. They also don't think the gullies were formed by dry mass wasting, a process by which a slope fails as in a rockslide. The best explanation, Schon said, was the melting of snow and ice deposits that created "modest" flows and formed the fan.

Richard Lewis | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union

nachricht Enormous dome in central Andes driven by huge magma body beneath it
25.10.2016 | University of California - Santa Cruz

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>