NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to How Water Helped Shape Martian Landscape

Dec 8, 2014

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

By NASA

Observations by NASA’s Curiosity Rover indicate Mars’ Mount Sharp was built by sediments deposited in a large lake bed over tens of millions of years.

This interpretation of Curiosity’s finds in Gale Crater suggests ancient Mars maintained a climate that could have produced long-lasting lakes at many locations on the Red Planet.

“If our hypothesis for Mount Sharp holds up, it challenges the notion that warm and wet conditions were transient, local, or only underground on Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “A more radical explanation is that Mars’ ancient, thicker atmosphere raised temperatures above freezing globally, but so far we don’t know how the atmosphere did that.”

Why this layered mountain sits in a crater has been a challenging question for researchers. Mount Sharp stands about 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall, its lower flanks exposing hundreds of rock layers. The rock layers – alternating between lake, river and wind deposits — bear witness to the repeated filling and evaporation of a Martian lake much larger and longer-lasting than any previously examined close-up.


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12 comments on “NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to How Water Helped Shape Martian Landscape

  • OK, I’m no chemist so this is in the nature of a question(s).

    List item

    Can large volumes of surface water exist in the absence of an atmosphere containing both Oxygen & Hydrogen (in similar proportions to here on Earth). And incidentally were there oceans of some sort on Earth before our atmosphere was oxygenated?

    Can such an atmosphere at that distance from the sun produce conditions warm enough to sustain liquid surface water?

    If it can’t, is there any evidence that at some time in the past Mars was closer to the Sun or that the Sun was hotter?

    Could an atmosphere of different gasses produce lakes/oceans which could produce similar sedimentary rock patterns to those on Earth and (apparently) on Mars?



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  • Philoctetes Dec 8, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Can large volumes of surface water exist in the absence of an atmosphere containing both Oxygen & Hydrogen (in similar proportions to here on Earth). And incidentally were there oceans of some sort on Earth before our atmosphere was oxygenated?

    Yes.
    Maintaining fluid water, is a matter of temperature and pressure, not chemical composition. The high proportion of oxygen on Earth is largely due to photosynthesising plants etc. Earth’s primordial atmosphere lacked free oxygen molecules for millions of years.

    If it can’t, is there any evidence that at some time in the past Mars was closer to the Sun or that the Sun was hotter?

    Mars has an eccentric orbit, so it is much nearer to the Sun at some stages in its orbit. This would have a heating or cooling effect over the top of seasonal variations. – (A bit like the Earth’s Milankovitch cycles which trigger ice-ages.)

    If it had a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere like Venus, the greenhouse effect would make it much hotter.

    At present the atmospheric pressure is so low and the temperature cold, so water sublimes directly from ice to vapour on Mars.

    @OP -The rock layers – alternating between lake, river and wind deposits — bear witness to the repeated filling and evaporation of a Martian lake much larger and longer-lasting than any previously examined close-up.

    Mars is very dry with dust-storms, but dry does not necessarily mean an absence of water. We think the present water on Mars is frozen rock hard.

    There could well be strata of ice under the layers of wind blown dust , in some places.



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  • Thanks for that Alan4, but just a supplemental, you say:

    “Yes.
    Maintaining fluid water, is a matter of temperature and pressure, not chemical composition. The high proportion of oxygen on Earth is largely due to photosynthesising plants etc. Earth’s primordial atmosphere lacked free oxygen molecules for millions of years.”

    The point I was clumsily trying to articulate was concerning where the oxygen in surface water originated (if not in the atmosphere), but I guess the topical answer would be “from comets”



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  • Philoctetes Dec 8, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    The formation of the Solar system is quite complex, but there is a simple outline explanation here.
    https://astroclock2010.wordpress.com/cosmic-timeline-17/

    but I guess the topical answer would be “from comets”

    Much of the volatile material was swept out of the early inner solar-System by the solar wind and solar radiation, as we can see with the planet Mercury and comets which approach the Sun. Comets/asteroids, bring volatile materials back in from the cold outer Solar-System.

    The craters all over the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other moons, testify to the Late Heavy Bombardment.
    http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/comets/10Page5.pdf

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Heavy_Bombardment



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  • @OP – Why this layered mountain sits in a crater has been a challenging question for researchers. Mount Sharp stands about 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall, its lower flanks exposing hundreds of rock layers. The rock layers – alternating between lake, river and wind deposits — bear witness to the repeated filling and evaporation of a Martian lake much larger and longer-lasting than any previously examined close-up.

    I am not sure about this claim for a longer lasting lake. A pattern of alternating river, lake, and wind blown deposits, suggests flash flooding and temporary lakes drying out cyclically, to me. Such features are known on Earth’s desert areas, where temporary lakes form seasonally or cyclically.

    Part of the answer could be in the nature of the “wind-blown-deposits”. They could be dust which settled on a lake and sank, or they could be dust deposited on a dry lake-bed.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30390143

    Scientists working on Nasa’s Curiosity rover think they can now explain why there is a huge mountain at the robot’s landing site in Mars’s Gale Crater.

    They believe it is the remains of sediments laid down in successive lakes that filled the deep bowl, probably over tens of millions of years.

    Only later did winds dig out an encircling plain to expose the 5km-high peak we see today.

    If true, this has major implications for past climates on the Red Planet.

    It implies the world had to have been far warmer and wetter in its first two billion years than many people had previously recognised.

    Ancient Mars, says the Curiosity team, must have enjoyed a vigorous global hydrological cycle, involving rains or snows, to maintain such humid conditions.



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  • Philoctetes Dec 8, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    The point I was clumsily trying to articulate was concerning where the oxygen in surface water originated (if not in the atmosphere), but I guess the topical answer would be “from comets”

    The most of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, was liberated from carbon dioxide, when the carbon from CO2 in plant material was buried in the coal measures leaving the O2 molecules free. (It is a very bad idea for industries to reverse this process.)

    BTW – Oxygen was toxic to the early forms of anaerobic life on Earth, and caused a mass extinction of these organisms when it built up.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v506/n7488/full/nature13068.html

    The rise of oxygen in Earth’s early ocean and atmosphere.



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  • Is it not possible that as it is in a crater and its in the middle of that crater that it could be the meteor itself? Silly question maybe.

    Oh, that brought the water with it?



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  • Olgun Dec 9, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Is it not possible that as it is in a crater and its in the middle of that crater that it could be the meteor itself? Silly question maybe.

    The crater is an impact crater, but neither a meteor nor rebounding impact debris would be in the neatly stratified layers of sediment making up this mountain.

    Oh, that brought the water with it?

    They identify the water as being carried by rivers leading to the crater, leaving traces of dry riverbeds.
    Meteor ice would vaporise on impact, but could eventually rain back somewhere on the planet.



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  • Yeh! I was altering too many possibilities like, it was formed somewhere elsewhere and arrived like that, a softer landing, ice not all vaporising too much or falling to far from the crater etc….



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  • Olgun Dec 9, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Yeh! I was altering too many possibilities like, it was formed somewhere elsewhere and arrived like that, a softer landing, ice not all vaporising too much or falling to far from the crater etc….

    These meteors are massive and travel at speeds roughly between 15,000 and 50,000 mph. While they may gently soft-land to merge into rubble-pile asteroids if they are orbiting side-by-side, they don’t do “soft-landings” on planets with large gravity and intersecting orbits.

    http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/timeline/prelaunch/landingsiteselection/aboutgalecrater/
    Gale Crater formed when a meteor hit Mars in its early history, about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. The meteor impact punched a hole in the terrain. The explosion ejected rocks and soil that landed around the crater.

    Gale Crater spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain (which is informally named “Mount Sharp” to pay tribute to geologist Robert P. Sharp) rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle! Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

    Layering in the central mound (Mount Sharp) suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. Some scientists believe the crater filled in with sediments and, over time, the relentless Martian winds carved Mount Sharp, which today rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) above the floor of Gale Crater–three times higher than the Grand Canyon is deep!

    In astronomy, we need to think BIG!



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  • It seems the second of the earlier Mars rovers is now showing its age, and is having to be patched up to keep it going!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30642548

    The problem with Opportunity is that its non-volatile memory is suffering from a fault, probably related to the hardware’s age.

    It means that when the rover tries to save telemetry data to the flash memory it fails, and so it then writes it to the volatile memory instead. When the rover powers down, the information is then wiped.

    “So now we’re having these events we call ‘amnesia,’,” explained Mr Callas in Discovery News.

    “Which is the rover trying to use the flash memory, but it wasn’t able to, so instead it uses the RAM… it stores telemetry data in that volatile memory, but when the rover goes to sleep and wakes up again, all [the data] is gone.

    “So that’s why we call it amnesia – it forgets what it has done.”

    Old rover

    The problems are becoming more severe, Nasa says, with the memory issue causing the rover reset itself, and in some cases stop communicating with mission control altogether.

    In an attempt to solve the problem, the Nasa team is attempting to “hack” the rover’s software so that it ignores the faulty part of its flash memory, and instead writes, permanently, to the healthy hardware.



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