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Thanks to the combination of images captured by NASA’s Curiosity Rover, scans of sedimentary rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico on Earth, and computer simulations, geologists have identified the remnants of ancient, eroded rivers in multiple craters on Mars.
A team of researchers, led by geoscientist Benjamin Cardenas from Penn State University and utilising data collected by NASA’s Curiosity Rover at Gale crater, a significant impact basin on Mars, has uncovered additional evidence suggesting that rivers once flowed across the Martian landscape, potentially more extensively than previously believed. Cardenas stated they discovered indications that Mars likely had a network of rivers.
The findings of this research have been published in Geophysical Research Letters magazine.
On Earth, rivers play a crucial role in chemical, nutrient, and sediment cycles that support life. Therefore, the discovery of additional evidence of ancient rivers on Mars holds significant implications for the quest to detect signs of past life on the Red Planet. Cardenas expressed, “Our research suggests that Mars may have hosted a greater number of rivers than previously assumed, offering a more favourable scenario for the existence of ancient life on the planet. It envisions a Mars where the conditions for life were widespread.”
The specific geological features identified in the Curiosity Rover’s data were found within numerous small craters but had not previously been recognised as deposits formed by flowing water. Evidence of rivers on Mars has been known since the Mariner 9 spacecraft, the first to orbit the planet in 1971, captured images of dried-up river channels and floodplains on the Martian surface. Mars rovers and orbiters have also detected mineralogical evidence in the form of sulphur-containing compounds which typically form in the presence of water. These spacecrafts have also identified ridges created by sediment in river channels that are billions of years old.
However, the findings suggest that rivers were even more widespread than initially thought. These features consist of alternating steep slopes and shallow benches, along with shortened ridges. They form when sediment deposited in river channels is subsequently eroded in a particular direction, possibly due to prevailing winds.
Suspecting their water-related origin, scientists from Penn State used a computer model to analyse Curiosity’s images within craters and three-dimensional scans of sedimentary bedrock layers on the seafloor beneath the Gulf of Mexico, collected by oil companies 25 years ago. The computer model simulated the erosion of sediment left by rivers.
Previously, Curiosity had confirmed the presence of liquid water in the Gale crater, which the rover is exploring.
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