Traces of Recent Water Discovered on Mars: Debris Flows on the Red Planet

First Posted: Apr 25, 2014 08:54 AM EDT

As the Mars rover Curiosity continues its trek across the Red Planet, it continues to make new discoveries. It's already found evidence of liquid water in the ancient past--but what about water during a more recent time? Researchers may have found evidence of recent water on Mars, which could hint at a better chance of finding microbial life.

The southern hemisphere of Mars is home to a crater that contains very well-preserved gullies and debris flow deposits. What's more interesting, though, is the fact that the geomorphological traits of these landforms may suggest that they were created by the action of liquid water in geologically recent time.

So what evidence is there? When sediment on a slope becomes saturated with water, the mixture may become too heavy to remain in place. This causes a flow of debris and water as a single-phase unit, called a debris flow. During one of these flows, a mixture of stones, gravel, clay and water moves rapidly down the slow. When it stops, it creates characteristic surface features. In this case, the researchers spotted landforms that seem to show these features.

"Our fieldwork on Svalbard confirmed our interpretation of the Martian deposits," said Andreas Johnsson, one of the researchers, in a news release. "What surprised us was that the crater in which these debris flows have formed is so young."

In fact, the crater is a mere 200,000 years old. This means that the crater was formed long after the most recent proposed ice age on Mars, which ended about 400,000 years ago.

"Gullies are common on Mars, but the ones which have been studied previously are older, and the sediments where they have formed are associated with the most recent ice age," said Johnsson in a news release. "Our study crater on Mars is far too young to have been influenced by the conditions that were prevalent then. This suggests that the meltwater-related processes that formed these deposits have been exceptionally effective also in more recent times."

The findings reveal a bit more about the history of Mars. By understanding the planet's evolution and when liquid water was present on its surface, researchers can better understand how it has changed over time, and if there was the possibility for life on the Red Planet in the past.

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