Evidence uncovered of recent water on Mars

Liquid water could have flowed on the Red Planet just 200,000 years ago

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Credit: NASA/JPL/UofA for HiRISE

Researchers have uncovered evidence for very recent melt-water and debris flow activity on Mars


Think of Mars and the arid, dusty plains frequented by NASA’s Curiosity rover spring to mind. But for years, scientists have known that liquid water once spread over much of the Red Planet’s surface. Now, a team from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden has unearthed new evidence that suggests liquid water might still have existed on the planet far more recently than anyone could have imagined – just 200,000 years ago.

“We have discovered a very young crater in the southern mid-latitudes of Mars that shows evidence of liquid water in Mars’ recent past” says lead author Andreas Johnsson from the University of Gothenburg Department of Earth Sciences.

The crater contains a series of well-preserved channels and debris flow deposits, saturated quantities of sediment made mobile by liquid water.

To try and establish evidence for liquid water, the team compared these landforms with similar known debris flows on Svalbard, Norway.

“Our fieldwork on Svalbard confirmed our interpretation of the Martian deposits. What surprised us was that the crater in which these debris flows have formed is so young,” says Johnsson.

Johnsson and his team have dated the crater to be approximately 200,000 years old – previous estimates suggested that any liquid water froze during the most recent Martian ice age around 400,000 years ago.

“Gullies are common on Mars, but the ones which have been studied previously are older, and the sediments where they have formed are associated with the most recent ice age. Our study crater on Mars is far too young to have been influenced by the conditions that were prevalent then. This suggests that the meltwater-related processes that formed these deposits have been exceptionally effective also in more recent times,” said Johnsson.

“My first thought was that the water that formed these debris flows had come from preserved ice within the rampart ejecta. But when we looked more closely, we didn’t find any structures such as faults or fractures in the crater that could have acted as conduits for the meltwater. It is more likely that the water has come from melting snow packs, when the conditions were favourable for snow formation. This is possible, since the orbital axis of Mars was more tilted in the past than it is today,” he said.


 

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