Images from the visible light camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, combined with images from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, suggest melting snow is the likely cause of the numerous eroded gullies first documented on Mars in 2000 by Global Surveyor.
The now-famous martian gullies were created by trickling water from melting snow packs, not underground springs or pressurized flows, as had been previously suggested, argues Dr. Philip Christensen, the principal investigator for Odyssey's camera system and a professor from Arizona State University in Tempe. He proposes gullies are carved by water melting and flowing beneath snow packs, where it is sheltered from rapid evaporation in the planet's thin atmosphere. His paper is in the electronic February 19 issue of Nature.
Looking at an image of an impact crater in the southern mid-latitudes of Mars, Christensen noted eroded gullies on the crater's cold, pole-facing northern wall and immediately next to them a section of what he calls "pasted-on terrain." Such unique terrain represents a smooth deposit of material that Mars researchers have concluded is "volatile" (composed of materials that evaporate in the thin Mars atmosphere), because it characteristically occurs only in the coldest, most sheltered areas. The most likely composition of this slowly evaporating material is snow. Christensen suspected a special relationship between the gullies and the snow.
"The Odyssey image shows a crater on the pole-facing side has this 'pasted-on' terrain, and as you come around to the west there are all these gullies," said Christensen. "I saw it and said 'Ah-ha!' It looks for all the world like these gullies are being exposed as this terrain is being removed through melting and evaporation."
View captions, images, and an animation at the THEMIS site
Eroded gullies on martian crater walls and cliff sides were first observed in images taken by Mars Global Surveyor in 2000. There have been other scientific theories offered to explain gully formation on Mars, including seeps of ground water, pressurized flows of ground water (or carbon dioxide), and mudflows caused by collapsing permafrost deposits, but no explanation to date has been universally accepted. The scientific community has remained puzzled, yet has been eagerly pursuing various possibilities.
"The gullies are very young," Christensen said. "That's always bothered me, because how is it that Mars has groundwater close enough to the surface to form these gullies, and yet the water has stuck around for billions of years? Second, you have craters with rims that are raised, and the gullies go almost to the crest of the rim. If it's a leaking subsurface aquifer, there's not much subsurface up there. And, finally, why do they occur preferentially on the cold face of the slope at mid-latitudes? If it's melting groundwater causing the flow, that's the coldest place, and the least likely place for that to happen."
Christensen points out that finding water erosion under melting snow deposits answers many of these problems, "Snow on Mars is most likely to accumulate on the pole-facing slopes, the coldest areas. It accumulates and drapes the landscape in these areas during one climate period, and then it melts during a warmer one. Melting begins first in the most exposed area right at the crest of the ridge. This explains why gullies start so high up." Once he started to think about snow, Christensen began finding a large number of other images showing a similar relationship between "pasted on" snow deposits and gullies in the high resolution images taken by the camera on Global Surveyor. Yet it was the unique mid-range resolution of the visible light camera in Mars Odyssey's thermal emission imaging system that was critical for the insight, because of its wide field of view.
"It was almost like finding a Rosetta Stone. The basic idea comes out of having a regional view, which Odyssey's camera system gives. It's a kind of you-can't-see-the forest-for-the-trees problem. An Odyssey image made it all suddenly click, because the resolution was high enough to identify these features and yet low enough to show their relationship to each other in the landscape," he said.
"Christensen's new hypothesis was made possible by NASA's tandem of science orbiters currently laying the groundwork for locating the most interesting areas for future surface exploration by roving laboratories, such as the Mars Exploration Rovers, scheduled for launch in May and June of this year," said Dr. Jim Garvin, NASA's lead scientist for Mars Exploration in Washington, D.C.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars Exploration Program for NASA's Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C.
More information about the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission is available on the Internet at http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey/.
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