Rather like a swollen river overflowing its banks, the story of water on Mars keeps on rising and spreading in quite unpredictable ways.
While the planet is now inarguable parched — though with lots of polar and subsurface ice and, perhaps, some seasonal surface trickles — data from the Curiosity rover, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other missions have proven quite reliably that the planet was once much wetter and warmer. But how much wetter, and for how long, remains of subject of hot debate.
On one side, Mars climate modelers have struggled to find mechanisms to keep the planet wetter and warmer for more than it’s earliest period — perhaps 500 million years. Their projections flow from the seemingly established conclusion that Mars lost much of its atmosphere by 3.5 billion years ago, and without that protection warmer and wetter appear to be impossible.
But the morphology of the planet, the gorges, the fossil lakes, the riverbeds and deltas that are visible because of 21st century technology and missions, appears to tell a different and more wide-ranging story of Mars water.
And now, in one of the most expansive interpretations of the Martian water story, University of Chicago planetary scientist and Mars expert Edwin Kite and colleagues report in a Science Advances paper that the planet not only once had many, many lakes and rivers, but that they were filled as part of a water cycle involving precipitation, rather than primarily through the sporadic melting of primordial ice as a result of incoming meteorites or other astrophysical events.
What’s more, they write, the rivers continued to sporadically flow well past the time when the Martian surface has been assumed to be dead dry.
The era when Mars has been most often described as going from wet-to-dry is around 3.5 billion years ago, but their interpretation of when precipitation-filled rivers stopped running is about 3 billion years ago. In other words, Kite’s team now says the rivers ran — often quite actively — for more than one billion years.… Read more