Tag Archives: rivers

New evidence of lakes and streams in Mars’ recent past

Using data from three different orbiters scientists have mapped out a region of lakes and streams on Mars that appear to have contained liquid water a billion years after the red planet is believed to have dried up.

To bracket the time period when the fresh shallow valleys in Arabia Terra formed, scientists started with age estimates for 22 impact craters in the area. They assessed whether or not the valleys carved into the blankets of surrounding debris ejected from the craters, as an indicator of whether the valleys are older or younger than the craters. They concluded that this fairly wet period on Mars likely occurred between two and three billion years ago, long after it is generally thought that most of Mars’ original atmosphere had been lost and most of the remaining water on the planet had frozen.

The characteristics of the valleys support the interpretation that the climate was cold: “The rate at which water flowed through these valleys is consistent with runoff from melting snow,” Wilson said, “These weren’t rushing rivers. They have simple drainage patterns and did not form deep or complex systems like the ancient valley networks from early Mars.”

This region, Arabia Terra, is the same area where scientists have found fossilized rivers.

A river on Mars

A river on Mars

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter this week released it monthly set of cool images. One of those images, which I have cropped and reduced to show it here, is of an ancient river on Mars, the formation process of which geologists still debate. As the scientists note,

The channel pattern, called “dendritic” because of its tree–like branching, begins at the top of the image and runs down over the rim of an ancient impact basin across the basin floor. The soil surface overlying these channels, and indeed the entire landscape, has been changed and reworked over the intervening millions of years, by the combined actions of wind and ice. Over time, the original channels become muted or even erased.

One thing I learned in writing an article for Astronomy about the rivers seen on Saturn’s moon Titan is that without plant life there is no known natural process to hold river banks in place. Instead, if the grade is shallow and not confined by bedrock cliffs, rivers will meander about randomly forming braided channels as there will be nothing on shore to hold the water within the same course. For example, on a lifeless Earth the water draining the central basin of the midwest United States would have flowed south across a wide scattered area covering the entire plains, rather than flowing within the courses of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Thus, it is not surprising that this river on Mars appears muted or partly erased. It probably was never very clearly delineated in the first place.

New images of a dry river on Mars.

New images of a dry river bed on Mars.

Reull Vallis, the river-like structure in these images, is believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant martian past, cutting a steep-sided channel through the Promethei Terra Highlands before running on towards the floor of the vast Hellas basin. This sinuous structure, which stretches for almost [1000 miles] across the Martian landscape, is flanked by numerous tributaries, one of which can be clearly seen cutting in to the main valley towards the upper (north) side.