Sunday, December 10, 2006
NASA Images Suggest Water Still Flows in Brief Spurts on Mars
[Image right: A new gully deposit in a crater in the Centauri Montes Region. Image credit: NASA/ JPL/ Malin Space Science Systems]
Astrobiology: NASA photographs have revealed bright new deposits seen in two gullies on Mars that suggest water carried sediment through them sometime during the past seven years (see video below).
"These observations give the strongest evidence to date that water still flows occasionally on the surface of Mars," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, Washington.
Liquid water, as opposed to the water ice and water vapor known to exist at Mars, is considered necessary for life. The new findings heighten intrigue about the potential for microbial life on Mars. The Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor provided the new evidence of the deposits in images taken in 2004 and 2005.
"The shapes of these deposits are what you would expect to see if the material were carried by flowing water," said Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. "They have finger-like branches at the downhill end and easily diverted around small obstacles." Malin is principal investigator for the camera and lead author of a report about the findings published in the journal Science
The atmosphere of Mars is so thin and the temperature so cold that liquid water cannot persist at the surface. It would rapidly evaporate or freeze. Researchers propose that water could remain liquid long enough, after breaking out from an underground source, to carry debris downslope before totally freezing. The two fresh deposits are each several hundred meters or yards long.
The light tone of the deposits could be from surface frost continuously replenished by ice within the body of the deposit. Another possibility is a salty crust, which would be a sign of water's effects in concentrating the salts. If the deposits had resulted from dry dust slipping down the slope, they would likely be dark, based on the dark tones of dust freshly disturbed by rover tracks, dust devils and fresh craters on Mars.
Mars Global Surveyor has discovered tens of thousands of gullies on slopes inside craters and other depressions on Mars. Most gullies are at latitudes of 30 degrees or higher. Malin and his team first reported the discovery of the gullies in 2000. To look for changes that might indicate present-day flow of water, his camera team repeatedly imaged hundreds of the sites. One pair of images showed a gully that appeared after mid-2002. That site was on a sand dune, and the gully-cutting process was interpreted as a dry flow of sand.
Today's announcement is the first to reveal newly deposited material apparently carried by fluids after earlier imaging of the same gullies. The two sites are inside craters in the Terra Sirenum and the Centauri Montes regions of southern Mars.
"These fresh deposits suggest that at some places and times on present-day Mars, liquid water is emerging from beneath the ground and briefly flowing down the slopes. This possibility raises questions about how the water would stay melted below ground, how widespread it might be, and whether there's a below-ground wet habitat conducive to life. Future missions may provide the answers," said Malin.
Besides looking for changes in gullies, the orbiter's camera team assessed the rate at which new impact craters appear. The camera photographed approximately 98 percent of Mars in 1999 and approximately 30 percent of the planet was photographed again in 2006. The newer images show 20 fresh impact craters, ranging in diameter from 7 feet (2 meters) to 486 feet (148 meters) that were not present approximately seven years earlier. These results have important implications for determining the ages of features on the surface of Mars. These results also approximately match predictions and imply that Martian terrain with few craters is truly young.
Mars Global Surveyor began orbiting Mars in 1997. The spacecraft is responsible for many important discoveries. NASA has not heard from the spacecraft since early November. Attempts to contact it continue. Its unprecedented longevity has allowed monitoring Mars for over several years past its projected lifetime.
Source: NASA 06-362 12.06.06
Related NASA press conference video "Mars Recent Activity Revealed" (61 mins):
Based on the paper:
Present-Day Impact Cratering Rate and Contemporary Gully Activity on Mars
Michael C. Malin, Kenneth S. Edgett, Liliya V. Posiolova, Shawn M. McColley, Eldar Z. Noe Dobrea
Science 8 December 2006:
Vol. 314. no. 5805, pp. 1573 - 1577
The Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Camera has acquired data that establish the present-day impact cratering rate and document new deposits formed by downslope movement of material in mid-latitude gullies on Mars. Twenty impacts created craters 2 to 150 meters in diameter within an area of 21.5 x 106 square kilometers between May 1999 and March 2006. The values predicted by models that scale the lunar cratering rate to Mars are close to the observed rate, implying that surfaces devoid of craters are truly young and that as yet unrecognized processes of denudation must be operating. The new gully deposits, formed since August 1999, are light toned and exhibit attributes expected from emplacement aided by a fluid with the properties of liquid water: relatively long, extended, digitate distal and marginal branches, diversion around obstacles, and low relief. The observations suggest that liquid water flowed on the surface of Mars during the past decade.
See "Orbiter's Long Life Helps Scientists Track Changes on Mars":
New gullies that did not exist in mid-2002 have appeared on a Martian sand dune.
That's just one of the surprising discoveries that have resulted from the extended life of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which this month began its ninth year in orbit around Mars. Boulders tumbling down a Martian slope left tracks that weren't there two years ago. New impact craters formed since the 1970s suggest changes to age-estimating models. And for three Mars summers in a row, deposits of frozen carbon dioxide near Mars' south pole have shrunk from the previous year's size, suggesting a climate change in progress.
"Our prime mission ended in early 2001, but many of the most important findings have come since then, and even bigger ones might lie ahead," said Tom Thorpe, project manager for Mars Global Surveyor at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The orbiter is healthy and may be able to continue studying Mars for five to 10 more years, he said.
Mars years are nearly twice as long as Earth years. The orbiter's longevity has enabled monitoring of year-to-year patterns on Mars, such as seasonal dust storms and changes in the polar caps. "Mars is an active planet, and over a range of timescales changes occur, even in the surface," said Dr. Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, principal investigator for the Mars Orbiter Camera on Mars Global Surveyor.
"To see new gullies and other changes in Mars surface features on a time span of a few years presents us with a more active, dynamic planet than many suspected before Mars Global Surveyor got there," said Michael Meyer, Mars Exploration Program chief scientist, NASA Headquarters, Washington.
Two gullies appear in an April 2005 image of a sand-dune slope where they did not exist in July 2002. The Mars Orbiter Camera team has found many sites on Mars with fresh-looking gullies, and checked back at more than 100 gullied sites for possible changes between imaging dates, but this is the first such find. Some gullies, on slopes of large sand dunes, might have formed when frozen carbon dioxide, trapped by windblown sand during winter, vaporized rapidly in spring, releasing gas that made the sand flow as a gully-carving fluid.
At another site, more than a dozen boulders left tracks when they rolled down a hill sometime between the taking of images in November 2003 and December 2004. It is possible that they were set in motion by strong wind or by a "marsquake," Malin said.
Some changes are slower than expected. Studies suggest new impact craters might appear at only about one-fifth the pace assumed previously, Malin said. That pace is important because crater counts are used to estimate the ages of Mars surfaces.
The camera has recorded seasonal patterns of clouds and dust within the atmosphere over the entire planet. In addition, other instruments on Mars Global Surveyor have provided information about atmospheric changes and year-to-year patterns on Mars as the mission has persisted. Daily mapping of dust abundance in Mars' atmosphere by the Thermal Emission Spectrometer has shown dust over large areas during three Mars southern hemisphere summers in a row. However, the extent and duration of dust storms varied from year to year.
Mars Global Surveyor was launched Nov. 7, 1996; entered orbit around Mars
Sept. 12, 1997; and returned the first Mars data from its science instruments Sept. 15, 1997. Beyond its own investigations, the orbiter provides support for other Mars missions, such as landing-site evaluations, atmospheric monitoring, communication relay and imaging of hardware on the surface. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL's industrial partner is Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, which built and operates the spacecraft.
For newly released images on the Internet, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/solarsystem/mgs-092005-images.html and http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2005/09/20/ .
Source: NASA 2005-152 September 20, 2005
And Why Explore Mars?:
...Over the next 20 years, however, new developments in studies on Earth came to change the way that scientists thought about life and Mars.
One was the 1996 announcement by a team from Stanford University, NASA's Johnson Space Center and Quebec's McGill University that a meteorite believed to have originated on Mars contained what might be the fossils of ancient microbes. This rock and other so-called Mars meteorites discovered on several continents on Earth are believed to have been blasted away from the red planet by asteroid or meteor impacts. They are thought to come from Mars because gases trapped in some of the rocks match the composition of Mars' atmosphere. Not all scientists agreed with the conclusions of the team announcing the discovery of fossils, but it reopened the issue of life on Mars.
Other developments that shaped scientists' thinking included new research on how and where life thrives on Earth. The fundamental requirements for life as we know it are liquid water, organic compounds and an energy source for synthesizing complex organic molecules. Beyond these basics, we do not yet understand the environmental and chemical evolution that leads to the origin of life. But in recent years it has become increasingly clear that life can thrive in settings much different from the longheld notion of a tropical soup rich in organic nutrients.
Other posts include: