Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lava likely made river-like channel on Mars

Details from the Ascraeus channel (red), meandering across the surface of Mars. The insets in the black boxes show close-ups of some of the structures that lava can form: (left) branched channels, (middle) a snaking channel and (right) rootless vents; the rootless vents are also marked by yellow spots on the main image.Flowing lava can carve or build paths very much like the riverbeds and canyons etched by water, and this probably explains at least one of the meandering channels on the surface of Mars. These results were presented on March 4, 2010 at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference by Jacob Bleacher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Whether channels on Mars were formed by water or by lava has been debated for years, and the outcome is thought to influence the likelihood of finding life there.

"To understand if life, as we know it, ever existed on Mars, we need to understand where water is or was," says Bleacher. Geologists think that the water currently on the surface of Mars is either held in the soil or takes the form of ice at the planet's north and south poles. But some researchers contend that water flowed or pooled on the surface sometime in the past; water in this form is thought to increase the chance of some form of past or present life.

One of the lines of support for the idea that water once flowed on Mars comes from images that reveal details resembling the erosion of soil by water: terracing of channel walls, formation of small islands in a channel, hanging channels that dead-end and braided channels that branch off and then reconnect to the main branch. "These are thought to be clear evidence of fluvial [water-based] erosion on Mars," Bleacher says.

Lava is generally not thought to be able to create such finely crafted features. Instead, "the common image is of the big, open channels in Hawaii," he explains.

The Tharsis region of Mars, including the three volcanoes of Tharsis Montes (Arsia, Pavonis and Ascraeus Mons), as well as Olympic Mons in the upper left corner.Bleacher and his colleagues carried out a careful study of a single channel on the southwest flank of Mars' Ascraeus Mons volcano, one of the three clustered volcanoes collectively called the Tharsis Montes. To piece together images covering more than 270 kilometers (~168 miles) of this channel, the team relied on high-resolution pictures from three cameras—the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), the Context Imager (CTX) and the High/Super Resolution Stereo Color (HRSC) imager—as well as earlier data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). These data gave a much more detailed view of the surface than previously available.

Because the fluid that formed this and other Ascraeus Mons channels is long-gone, its identity has been hard to deduce, but the visual clues at the source of the channel seem to point to water. These clues include small islands, secondary channels that branch off and rejoin the main one and eroded bars on the insides of the curves of the channels.

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