The Sciences

Unpeeling the history of water on Mars

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitFeb 22, 2010 1:04 PM


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Years ago, I visited the Grand Canyon with my family. The beauty of it was overwhelming, and everything they say about it is true. It's magnificent. That grandeur is only amplified by the obvious scientific significance of it. The layers of sedimentary rock, exposed by the eons-long patient erosion of the Colorado river, are a dramatic open textbook of the geological history of our planet, as if the Earth itself is saying "Look here, and learn of the past!" Learn we have. And the Earth, as we have also learned, is not entirely unique. From millions of kilometers away, another canyon beckons us to uncover a planet's past.

[Click to engrandcanyonate.] What you're seeing here is a topographical model of a small part of a crater floor on Mars: Gale Crater, to be precise, a monster 150 km (90 miles) wide impact located nearly on the equator of Mars. In its center rises a mountain, a central peak common in large impact craters. Surrounding this central peak is an enormous mound of material, rising kilometers above the crater's floor (see the topographic image below; the ellipse represents an old potential landing site of the Spirit rover). It's not entirely clear how this mound formed; however, it's likely that the entire crater was once filled with material laid down as periodic deposits, and that most of it has eroded away, leaving just that lopsided mound.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because the Grand Canyon has a similar history (without the crater, of course). And like its terrestrial counterpart, the exposed layers tell a history of Mars's geologic past. Scientists studying those layers using images from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have uncovered a startling feature: while sulfates (deposited by salty water) are seen throughout the layers, clays are only seen lower down, deeper into the past. Clays are only seen where water is abundant, but sulfates alone indicate conditions where water evaporated away. What the floor of Gale Crater appears to be telling us is that standing water, at least locally, existed long ago on Mars, but later evaporated away. This is consistent with what we have seen in other parts of Mars, of course. Ever since the rovers landed on Mars we've seen one piece of evidence after another of standing water in the Red Planet's distant past. But there's something about this news that appeals to me, that touches more than the scientist part of my brain. If I hadn't told you that first image was from Mars, you might very well think that it was from the Grand Canyon or some other Earthly feature. And it really is a canyon, as you can see from this HiRISE image of the same area:

This image shows the very lower left of the oblique view shown above. It's upside-down, making features difficult to compare (check out the full HiRISE image of the area to see the whole thing), but the crater floor is at the top of this false-color image, and the mound begins to rise toward the bottom. You can see the canyon carved right into the floor, with sand dunes rippling across it. Whatever carved this canyon, perhaps hundreds of millions of years ago, perhaps more, tore away the deposited material and revealed all those layers of rock. These layers can be read like a history book written in reverse chronological order, showing us the deep past of Mars, and telling the sad tale of how an entire planet lost its water. Mars was once more like the Earth is now, though just how much is anyone's guess at the moment. I doubt it was exactly like Earth; the evidence of water we see indicates it was incredibly salty, far saltier than we have here at home. But still, Mars is a brilliant ochre cautionary tale in our sky. There but for the grace of water go we...

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