Radar Map of Buried Mars Layers Matches Climate Cycles

September 22, 2009
A radar-generated map of the thickness of the layered deposits. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Rome/Southwest Research Institute/University of Arizona

(PhysOrg.com) -- New, three-dimensional imaging of Martian north-polar ice layers by a radar instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is consistent with theoretical models of Martian climate swings during the past few million years.

Alignment of the layering patterns with the modeled climate cycles provides insight about how the layers accumulated. These ice-rich, layered deposits cover an area one-third larger than Texas and form a stack up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) thick atop a basal deposit with additional ice.

"Contrast in between layers is what provides the reflectivity we observe with the ," said Nathaniel Putzig of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo., a member of the science team for the Shallow Radar instrument on the orbiter. "The pattern of reflectivity tells us about the pattern of material variations within the layers."

Earlier radar observations indicated that the Martian north-polar layered deposits are mostly ice. Radar contrasts between different layers in the deposits are interpreted as differences in the concentration of rock material, in the form of dust, mixed with the ice. These deposits on Mars hold about one-third as much water as Earth's .

Putzig and nine co-authors report findings from 358 radar observations in a paper accepted for publication by the journal Icarus and currently available online.

Their radar results provide a cross-sectional view of the north-polar layered deposits of Mars, showing that high-reflectivity zones, with multiple contrasting layers, alternate with more-homogenous zones of lower reflectivity. Patterns of how these two types of zones alternate can be correlated to models of how changes in Mars' tilt on its axis have produced changes in the planet's climate in the past 4 million years or so, but only if some possibilities for how the layers form are ruled out.

"We're not doing the climate modeling here; we are comparing others' modeling results to what we observe with the radar, and using that comparison to constrain the possible explanations for how the layers form," Putzig said.

The most recent 300,000 years of Martian history are a period of less dramatic swings in the planet's tilt than during the preceding 600,000 years. Since the top zone of the north-polar layered deposits -- the most recently deposited portion -- is strongly radar-reflective, the researchers propose that such sections of high-contrast layering correspond to periods of relatively small swings in the planet's tilt.

They also propose a mechanism for how those contrasting layers would form. The observed pattern does not fit well with an earlier interpretation that the dustier layers in those zones are formed during high-tilt periods when sunshine on the polar region sublimates some of the top layer's ice and concentrates the dust left behind. Rather, it fits an alternative interpretation that the dustier layers are simply deposited during periods when the atmosphere is dustier.

The new radar mapping of the extent and depth of five stacked units in the north-polar layered deposits reveals that the geographical center of ice deposition probably shifted by 400 kilometers (250 miles) or more at least once during the past few million years.

"The radar has been giving us spectacular results," said Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a co-author of the paper. "We have mapped continuous underground layers in three dimensions across a vast area."

Provided by JPL/NASA (news : web)

Explore further: Mars Express radar gauges water quantity around Mars south pole

Related Stories

Mars Express Probes Red Planet's Unusual Deposits

November 1, 2007

The radar system on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter has uncovered new details about some of the most mysterious deposits on Mars: the Medusae Fossae Formation. It has provided the first direct measurement ...

Evidence of vast frozen water reserves on Mars: scientists

November 20, 2008

Vast Martian glaciers of water ice under protective blankets of rocky debris persist today at much lower latitudes than any ice previously identified on Mars, says new research using ground-penetrating radar on NASA's Mars ...

Recommended for you

NASA missions harvest a passel of 'pumpkin' stars

October 27, 2016

Astronomers using observations from NASA's Kepler and Swift missions have discovered a batch of rapidly spinning stars that produce X-rays at more than 100 times the peak levels ever seen from the sun. The stars, which spin ...

A dead star's ghostly glow

October 27, 2016

The eerie glow of a dead star, which exploded long ago as a supernova, reveals itself in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the Crab Nebula. But don't be fooled. The ghoulish-looking object still has a pulse. Buried ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2009
Mapping electrical property changes with radar depends on frequency used. Results are an interpretation.
Sep 23, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

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.