The Soggy Sands of Mars?

Apr 06, 2006
Mars

Cracks and fins in the sand in an American desert look very similar to features seen on Mars and may indicate the recent presence of water at the surface, according to a new study by researcher Greg Chavdarian and Dawn Sumner, associate professor of geology at UC Davis.

"Recent, as in ongoing now," Sumner said.

Images from the Mars rover "Opportunity" show patterns of cracks across the surface of boulders and outcrops. Some of these cracks are associated with long, thin fins that protrude from the surface.

Those features look very similar to cracks and fins that form on the sulfate-rich sands at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The desert national park has a similar geological environment to the area of Mars visited by Opportunity, Sumner said.

Chavdarian spent weeks surveying the features at White Sands for an undergraduate research project. He conducted lab experiments to try and reproduce the effects. He found that the cracks at White Sands only form and grow in damp sand, especially during the wet months of the winter. In June, the sand was dry and cracks were filled in or worn away.

Cracks do form in drying mud, but this is not mud, Sumner said. There was no explanation for the formation of these types of cracks in sulfate sands before Opportunity landed, she said.

Chavdarian also looked at two types of thin, brittle fins poking a few inches out of the desert sand, usually facing into the wind. The most common type was found only in January when the sand was moist.

Chavdarian and Sumner think that the fins are formed when water seeps into cracks in the sand, carrying minerals with it. The water evaporates away, leaving behind those minerals, which are exposed as the wind blows sand away. Windblown material sticks to the exposed fin, making it larger and stronger.

If the cracks and fins seen by the Opportunity rover on Mars are formed in the same way as the features at White Sands, it would provide evidence for water at the surface of Mars away from the polar ice caps, Sumner said. Mars' ice caps are mostly carbon dioxide with some water ice.

The research is published in the April issue of the journal Geology.

Source: UC Davis

Explore further: We're not alone—but the universe may be less crowded than we think

Related Stories

California oil spill gushed like hose 'without a nozzle'

Jun 26, 2015

Firefighters investigating a reported petroleum stench at a California beach last month didn't take long to find a spill—oil was spreading across the sand and into the surf. Tracing the source, they found ...

To Yorubaland with drones, on the trail of the plague

Jun 03, 2015

The city of Ife has been significant to the Yoruba people of West Africa for as long as they can remember. It was briefly abandoned in the 19th century, and Gerard Chouin says the Yoruba repopulated the town, ...

Researchers finding applications for tough spinel ceramic

Apr 24, 2015

Imagine a glass window that's tough like armor, a camera lens that doesn't get scratched in a sand storm, or a smart phone that doesn't break when dropped. Except it's not glass, it's a special ceramic called ...

Recommended for you

Rosetta spacecraft sees sinkholes on comet

10 hours ago

The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft first began orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014. Almost immediately, scientists began to wonder about several surprisingly deep, almost perfectly ...

Observing the birth of a planet

12 hours ago

Astronomers at ETH Zurich have confirmed the existence of a young giant gas planet still embedded in the midst of the disk of gas and dust surrounding its parent star. For the first time, scientists are able ...

Me and my world: The human factor in space

13 hours ago

The world around us is defined by how we interact with it. But what if our world was out of this world? As part of NASA's One-Year Mission, researchers are studying how astronauts interact with the "world" ...

Radar guards against space debris

14 hours ago

Space debris poses a growing threat to satellites and other spacecraft, which could be damaged in the event of a collision. A new German space surveillance system, schedu- led to go into operation in 2018, will help to prevent ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.