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Gale Crater’s small mesas were formed by wind, not liquid water

Route through Murray Buttes
The Murray Buttes. Click to see August 11, 2016 post.

The uncertainty of science: Though Curiosity has found apparent evidence of past liquid water during its early travels on the floor of Gale Crater, scientists have now concluded that the first small mesas and buttes it traveled past back in 2016, dubbed the Murray Buttes, were not formed by the flow of liquid water but by wind reshaping ancient sand dunes. From the press release:

The lower part of Mount Sharp is composed of ancient lakebed sediments. These sediments accumulated on the lakebed when the crater flooded, shortly after its formation 3.8 billion years ago. Curiosity has spent much of the last nine years investigating these rocks for signs of habitability.

Dr Banham added: “More than 3.5 billion years ago this lake dried out, and the lake bottom sediments were exhumed and eroded to form the mountain at the centre of the crater – the present-day Mount Sharp. The flanks of the mountain are where we have found evidence that an ancient dune field formed after the lake, indicating an extremely arid climate.”

This conclusion comes from a paper released March 30th in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, and uses data obtained by Curiosity from August to September, 2016 (see rover updates from August 11, 2016, from August 28, 2016, and from September 13, 2016).

At that time Curiosity was still on the floor of Gale Crater, where that lake is thought to have once existed, but had reached the first tiny foothills and dune fields that sit at the base of Mt. Sharp.

The scientists also note that this data means that the floor of Gale Crater has not been amicable to life for at least 3 billion years. Dune fields are not places where life prospers, and the Murray Buttes required a lot of time for the original dunes to solidify into the multiple thin layers that exist today.

Weird Mars
Click to see August 28, 2016 post.

The photo above illustrates the many thin layers in these buttes. Each layer, only inches thick at most, represents the past existence of a dune anywhere from 13 to 130 feet high that was slowly swept through by Mars’ very thin atmosphere, depositing a new layer behind it. To get that many layers, all squeezed to become soft rock, required a lot of time and many many millions of seasons, during which the environment would have been very hostile to life.

These conclusions also suggest that we really do not yet know what the environment was like in Gale Crater when this theorized past lake existed. This data even suggests that this past liquid water could have been underground, not on the surface, a water table that was liquid because it was not exposed to Mars’ cold and very thin atmosphere.

We do not know, however, since the data available remains very preliminary.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • MDN

    Makes sense to me. With billions of years even a VERY slow process can effect significant change. For instance, consider that a modern semiconductor is manufactured of near invisible circuit elements that measure just 5 nanometers across. So if you assume that wind induced erosion proceeded at something like this scale per year, then given 3 BILLION years you’re looking at 15 meters (~50 feet) of erosion.

    Humans simply have a hard time adjusting our perspective to comprehend such a vast expanse of time.

  • Nice example! And I agree: Humans are not good with very small, very large, very fast, or very slow scales. I roll my eyes when I need to deal with microseconds – I guess I got used to milliseconds during the previous century.

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