Mars with ice, shaken, not stirred

Oct 26, 2007
Mars
Mars, photographed by the Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. Credit: NASA

Mars, like Earth, is a climate-fickle water planet. The main difference, of course, is that water on the frigid Red Planet is rarely liquid, preferring to spend almost all of its time traveling the world as a gas or churning up the surface as ice. That's the global picture literally and figuratively coming into much sharper focus as various Mars-orbiting cameras send back tomes of unprecedented super high-resolution imagery of ever vaster tracts of the planet's surface.

What were just a few years ago small hints about Mars' water and climate, as seen in a few "postage-stamp" high-resolution images and topography, have given way to broader theory that explains not only the features seen on the planet today, but imply a dynamic history of Martian climate change.

"When you have postage stamps, it's like studying a hair on an arm instead of the whole arm," said Mars researcher James Head III of Brown University. Head will present the latest integrated global view of Martian surface features and how they fit with Martian climate models on Sunday, 28 October 2007, at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Denver.

The pictures now reveal a range of ice-made features that show a strong preference to certain latitudes, Head explains. As on Earth, latitude-dependent features can mean only one thing: latitude-dependent climate.

The signs of water ice are obvious today at Mars' poles. But as you move towards the equator, there is plenty of evidence of water ice having shaped the surface in different ways not so long ago.

Not far from either pole, for instance, widespread bumpy polygonal patterned ground suggests the contraction and expansion of icy permafrost ground – very similar to that seen in Earth's Arctic and Antarctic. Next, between 30 and 60 degrees latitude in both hemispheres, the patterned ground gives way to a pervasive pitted texture of once ice-rich dust deposits. Even closer to the equator on the flanks of Mars' equatorial volcanoes are compelling signs of large glaciers, almost exactly like those of Earth. There are also craters which seem to be filled with glacial debris and small valleys which drop precipitously into canyons – which on Earth is usually a strong indicator that a glacier once filled and widened the canyon.

As for where all the ice went, much of it was sublimed away and deposited at the poles. The ice rules the more temperate latitudes only when the tilt of Mars' spin axis is far more extreme than today – up to 45 degrees. That tilt, or obliquity, exposed the poles to a lot more sun during the course of a Martian year, according to climate models, evaporating the ice caps. That same water refroze on the surface in the then darker and colder equatorial and middle latitudes, hence all the evidence of ice and glaciers.

"It's a quest to understand the Martian water cycle," said Head describing his work.

Among the instruments used to study Mars are the Mars Global Surveyor's Laser Altimeter (MOLA) and Camera (MOC), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Context Camera (CTX) and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), and the Mars Express's High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC).

Source: Geological Society of America

Explore further: New rocket propellant and motor design offer high performance and safety

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Under Rainier's crater, a natural laboratory like no other

Oct 03, 2014

Counting all the ups and downs, he had climbed more than 15,000 feet to get here - past yawning crevasses and over cliffs where a single misstep could send a rope team tumbling. His party was pummeled by a lightning storm ...

Glaciers in the grand canyon of Mars?

Sep 30, 2014

For decades, planetary geologists have speculated that glaciers might once have crept through Valles Marineris, the 2000-mile-long chasm that constitutes the Grand Canyon of Mars. Using satellite images, ...

Water in the solar system predates the Sun

Sep 25, 2014

Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets. Identifying the original source of Earth's water is key to understanding how life-fostering ...

New milestone in the search for water on distant planets

Sep 24, 2014

Astronomers have found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet about four times bigger than Earth, in the constellation Cygnus about 124 light years - or nearly 729 trillion miles - from our home planet. ...

Recommended for you

Asteroid 2014 SC324 zips by Earth Friday afternoon

50 minutes ago

What a roller coaster week it's been. If partial eclipses and giant sunspots aren't your thing, how about a close flyby of an Earth-approaching asteroid?  2014 SC324 was discovered on September 30 this ...

Who owns space?

1 hour ago

The golden age of planetary exploration had voyagers navigating new sea routes to uncharted territory. These territories were then claimed in the name of the monarchs who had financed the expeditions. All ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

DavesNotHere
not rated yet Oct 26, 2007
I love the way psuedo scientists jump on every idea with absolutely no data to back it up. They haven't actually found water on Mars, so you can't open the article saying that Mars isa a water planet like Earth and you can see the evidence of water everywhere. Cause you can't. So until they actualy find water there, don't state it as fact.

weewilly
not rated yet Oct 27, 2007
Is this just some sort of filler newsrelease? Those that get this newsletter need and want more factual items for possibly valid research or for quoting. Perhaps a section entitled "Way Out Science" should be started where those that know and deal in science can read it as fiction.