Water formed rocks (and Valleys) on Mars

Posted By Pamela on Mar 14, 2008 | 7 comments

One of the themes that constantly crops up in papers on Mars is water. Did it exist? If it did, is it responsible or is something else responsible for the gullies, deltas, valleys, and other features that look like (and are thus named like) formations here on Earth.

One of the more often argued over structures is Valles Marineris. Watch this cool fly over!

It looks like it is analogous to the Grand Canyon and was formed through flowing water (of some salinity) flowing/flooding across the surface. At the same time, scientists have argued that perhaps this is a wind or maybe even lava feature (although this later is far more rarely argued). The way to settle this argument is to look for a specific type of rocks (hydrous minerals) in the valley that could only be formed in liquid (in aqueous conditions). If this is a water feature, those minerals should exist in the valley and other “water features” in higher concentrations then we see them else where.

The two Mars rovers have been able to survey the minerals in their two landing sites, and Gustav crater is definitely someplace that once had liquid. Landing a rover in Valles Marineris is, um, a bit more challenging and won’t happen anytime soon. To get the data we need, geophysicists instead turn to spectroscopy. It is possible to tell from what specific colors of light Mars surface absorbs and reflects what minerals are present.

Using a comparison of data between MOLA (which gives highly accurate surface topology) and OMEGA (which gives really nice spectra information), data presented by J.-P. Bibring shows that Sulfates and hydrated phyllosilicates are found in Valles Marineris and other “water features” including Juventae Chasma.

At the same time, using this technique they found that Mawrth Vallis, a “river” bed with estuary are also filled with high-calcium pyroxene (a rock type not formed with water), indicating that this is a lava cut. On the banks of this “river” bed, there are hydrated minerals! This says the lava flowed in over an area that had once had water.

The general picture, traced out in gorgous images I will try and embed later, described water flowing in the earliest days of the Northern Highlands, with volcanism coming later and emplacing ontop of the hydrated minerals. In many cases these deposits will make it next to impossible to look for fossil life on “river” beds, but the banks, where hydrated materials are on the surface, just may give us some hope. Mawrth Vallis is a possible landing site for either MSL or ExoMars.


  1. I had not heard or considered how difficult volcanism could make the search for past water so much more arduous.

    [Pamela, your prior images work fine, but this link is broken.]

  2. Hi Helio – It’s a YouTube Video. You may be missing a driver 🙁

  3. Hmmmm… I’ve not had YouTube problems in the past.

  4. Is there any reason to discard the (rather obvious) working hypothesis that Mars got its water the same way we did, by getting pounded with comets early on?

  5. Could it not be that there was no water and strange winds have naturally eroded Mars?

  6. I believe it was in NatGeos’s recently aired “A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets” where a theory was exposed which made resonated with me, although I have not been able to find additional information on it, so I may have completely misunderstood it.

    If I remember correctly, I believe it explained that the ice caps underneath Mar’s dusty ground are melted every 5? million years flooding the planet with enough water to explain how areas such as VM were formed. I believe the cyclicality of the melting and freezing of the water has to do with Mars’ tilt towards the sun, although it wasn’t clear to me how the two related since 5 million years seemed like an awful long time for a planetary tilt cycle. In short, I believe it said that we just happen to be looking at Mars now during it’s dry cycle.

    Regardless, what is indisputable is the magnificence of the VM!

  7. It’s certainly a looker – whatever might have caused it. That’s definitely an intriguing possibility, though.


  1. Fly through the Mariner Valley on Mars - [...] Dr. Pamela Gay at StarStrider, comes this YouTube [...]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.