Could water have carved channels on Mars half a million years ago?

March 19, 2015 by Elizabeth Howell, Astrobiology Magazine,
A spectacular example of gullies on Mars, at roughly -71 degrees latitude in the southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Could water have carved channels on Mars as recently as 500,000 years ago? If that's the case, it would boost the case for relatively recent life on the red planet.

There's abundant evidence showing that Mars was wet early in its 4.5 billion history, but new research suggests that the water comes in cycles, providing opportunities for life to take a hold in between the long, cold ice ages.

The suggestion comes after roughly 15 years of observations from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The spacecraft's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HIRISE) camera gave investigators the first high-definition look at the planet's surface. Additionally, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft's Mars Orbiter Camera previously discovered .

With this powerful eye scanning Mars, almost immediately a new feature popped out—gullies. According to lead investigator Jay Dickson, the appearance of the gullies looks almost exactly like ones on Earth that were shaped by water. So the leading hypothesis of most gully formation is that it forms from flowing water, although some research suggests carbon dioxide frost contributes to gully modification.

"What we think is these older gullies that we're documenting now are remnants of a time when liquid water was more feasible at these locations," said Dickson, a planetary scientist at Brown University who has examined ice on Antarctica and Mars for more than a decade.

"The atmosphere was a little thicker and there was more sunlight hitting the poles, which moved the ice from the poles to mid-latitude locations."

His work was recently published in the scientific journal Icarus in a paper titled "Recent climate cycles on Mars: Stratigraphic relationships between multiple generations of gullies and the latitude dependent mantle."

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured hundreds of gullies using the HIRISE camera. Credit: NASA
Hundreds of gullies

Dickson led a recent survey of more than 200 gullies in the Red Planet's southern hemisphere, where they tend to be more abundant. A follow up study targets gullies in the northern hemisphere as well, to see if the observations of both hemispheres match.

Dickson and his team discovered that the gullies did not all form at the same time. They believe water flows on Mars and creates a gully, with fan-shaped deposits at the mouth of the channel. Over time, meteorites and dust alter the landscape, then water flows again and leaves more deposits, sometimes on top of the older ones.

Absolute ages are difficult to estimate from orbit because measuring the half-life of radioactive elements—a common method for dating rocks exactly—is not possible from a distance. Collecting such measurements requires a rover. Scientists can estimate ages, however, based on how many craters have formed in a given area. In general, the more craters a surface has, the older it is because there would have been more time for impacts from meteorites and other small bodies.

Climate change caused by the variations in the tilt of Mars' poles may be the reason for the periodic water flo ws. Over time, as the pole changes tilt, sunlight hits different areas of the planet, causing the ice to migrate from the poles to more "temperate" latitudes.

Right now, Mars is in a position where is unlikely to flow at gully locations. Climate models in concert with the gully observations predict, however, that water would have flowed as recently as 500,000 years ago.

The gullies seen here are one of numerous examples on Mars, showing water flowing in the ancient past. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Implications for life

We don't know yet if life ever existed on the Martian surface. Water may have flowed for long periods of time, but whether the water was hospitable is an open question.

"We don't know how acidic it was, and don't know how much water there was," Dickson said.

Artist’s conception of water on ancient Mars. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

What the study does point to, however, is a wider timespan for life to arise. Numerous observations of Mars in recent decades have shown evidence of not only gullies, but even a potential ancient shoreline where an ocean could have been. Furthermore, NASA's Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity rovers have all found signs of ancient water in the rocks.

The only way to prove that came more recently, however, is to get a rover down into a gully. Current landing technology, however, isn't designed to do that well. The atmosphere is much thinner at the high altitudes where gullies are present, making it hard to use a parachute. And there's a risk a rover could slip on the slope if controllers misdirected it.

Dickson and his collaborators suggest sending smaller spacecraft to these sites, which would be lighter under their parachutes and perhaps more nimble on the surface than the heavy Curiosity, which weighs roughly two tons. When that will happen, however, depends on NASA's plans after the Mars 2020 rover, a near-twin of Curiosity that so far is the last confirmed surface mission in the agency's plans.

Explore further: Gully patterns document Martian climate cycles

More information: "Recent climate cycles on Mars: Stratigraphic relationships between multiple generations of gullies and the latitude dependent mantle," Icarus, Volume 252, 15 May 2015, Pages 83-94, ISSN 0019-1035,

Related Stories

Gully patterns document Martian climate cycles

January 28, 2015

Geologists from Brown University have found new evidence that glacier-like ice deposits advanced and retreated multiple times in the midlatitude regions of Mars in the relatively recent past.

NASA spacecraft completes 40,000 Mars orbits

February 11, 2015

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed a mission milestone of 40,000 orbits on Feb. 7, 2015, in its ninth year of returning information about the atmosphere, surface and subsurface of Mars, from equatorial to polar latitudes.

Are gas-formed gullies the norm on Mars?

December 6, 2011

In June 2000, Martian imaging scientists made a striking discovery — data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft found gullies on the red planet. Gullies on Earth form when water runs down steep slopes and ...

NASA orbiter finds new gully channel on Mars

March 20, 2014

A comparison of images taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in November 2010 and May 2013 reveal the formation of a new gully channel on a crater-wall ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (6) Mar 19, 2015
Ask Valles Marineris if water carved it...

I'm going to go with, no.
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 19, 2015
Sounds about right. NASA has said our long term climate is due to our solar system bobbing up and down in the galactic plane which is now of course, the galactic corrugation, which would mean our trips are even longer. Obviously the cores of our solar bodies are heated by this interaction somehow and the heating we identify with water being expressed on the surface.
1/2 billion y ago is when our ice shell melted producing the 'water veil' on Earth, Venus who had exhausted its water from the core went surface molten, and Mars may have expressed the last of its core water. Perhaps these events are connected to our dying magnetar sun, Sol, who also would experience this heating event.
1 / 5 (8) Mar 19, 2015
Guys, there is water on Mars now. I have looked at thousands of Curiosity Rover photos and often I see wet dirt caked on its metal wheels. NASA just doesn't want to talk about it. Everything is an issue of National Security with them.
2 / 5 (4) Mar 19, 2015
There is still water on Mars, but the Little Green men have concealed it so that we won't come with our plastic bottles.
1.4 / 5 (11) Mar 19, 2015
" According to lead investigator Jay Dickson, the appearance of the gullies looks almost exactly like ones on Earth that were shaped by water."

Another assumption. Yes, the gullies may appear identical, but the ones on Earth can not be proven to have been formed from water flow. Much more likely is that the gullies on Mars were electrically cut, as were the ones on Earth which is why they are so similar. The fan at the right looks to be electrical excavation, similar effects can be created in a lab with the proper equipment and methods
4.3 / 5 (11) Mar 19, 2015

You are now the leader in the race for idiot of the week.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 20, 2015

@Stevepidge: Irrelevant. The find is water carving some recent channels.

But FWIW, there is evidence of water participating in making Valles Marineris:

"It has been recently suggested that Valles Marineris is a large tectonic "crack" in the Martian crust.[4][5] Most researchers agree that this formed as the crust thickened in the Tharsis region to the west, and was subsequently widened by erosion.[citation needed] However, near the eastern flanks of the rift, there appear to be some channels that may have been formed by water or carbon dioxide."

[ ]

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.