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New data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that the fresh gullies that have been seen on the Red Planet are caused by dry ice evaporation, not liquid water as had been hoped.
Dundas and collaborators used the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on MRO to examine gullies at 356 sites on Mars, beginning in 2006. Thirty-eight of the sites showed active gully formation, such as new channel segments and increased deposits at the downhill end of some gullies.
Using dated before-and-after images, researchers determined the timing of this activity coincided with seasonal carbon-dioxide frost and temperatures that would not have allowed for liquid water.
Frozen carbon dioxide, commonly called dry ice, does not exist naturally on Earth, but is plentiful on Mars. It has been linked to active processes on Mars such as carbon dioxide gas geysers and lines on sand dunes plowed by blocks of dry ice. One mechanism by which carbon-dioxide frost might drive gully flows is by gas that is sublimating from the frost providing lubrication for dry material to flow. Another may be slides due to the accumulating weight of seasonal frost buildup on steep slopes.
The findings in this latest report suggest all of the fresh-appearing gullies seen on Mars can be attributed to processes currently underway, whereas earlier hypotheses suggested they formed thousands to millions of years ago when climate conditions were possibly conducive to liquid water on Mars.