Ancient River Systems on Mars Seen in Unprecedented Detail

Mars Global Surveyor

Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor in 2003. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A satellite has revealed ancient Martian rivers in more detail than ever before.

Researchers have spent decades looking for evidence of ancient water on Mars. As technology has progressed, more evidence has come to light that rivers, lakes, and even oceans were once abundant on the red planet.

Modern Mars is icy and dusty and unlikely to have much liquid water on the surface, if any at all. But billions of years ago, Mars was warmer and could have had enough liquid water to support life. In fact, experts think Mars is one of the most likely places we will find evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Martian Surface Rock

This NASA image shows a Martian surface created by rock interacting with water. The nature of the water responsible for the alteration, and how it interacted with the rock to form the clay remains poorly understood. Not surprisingly, the study of such altered rocks on Mars is an area of active investigation. Credit: NASA.

A high-resolution satellite has captured detailed images of a rocky Martian cliff face revealing that it was formed by rivers more than 3.7 billion years ago. That is roughly the same time that life was starting to begin on Earth.

It’s the first time that scientists have been able to examine these kinds of rocks up close.

Geologists Dr. Francesco Salese and William McMahon from Utrecht University, the Netherlands, were supported by an international team including Dr. Matt Balme at the Open University and Dr. Joel Davis, a postdoctoral researcher at the Museum. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

Joel says, “We’ve never seen an outcrop with this amount of detail on it that we can definitely say is so old. This is one more piece of the puzzle in the search for ancient life on Mars, providing novel insight into just how much water occupied these ancient landscapes.”

The team examined images of taken by NASA’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The images were taken inside the enormous Hellas impact crater in the southern Martian hemisphere, one of the largest impact craters in the solar system.

Channels Hellas Basin Mars

The satellite image of the exposed Martian cliff face. Channel-forms preserved in sedimentary strata in the Hellas Basin on Mars. These well-exposed channels are archived evidence of long-lived rivers active on the Martian surface over 3.7 billion yrs ago. Credit: NASA JPL-Caltech UoA Matt Balme & William McMahon

A 200-meter-thick stack of layered rocks is visible within the cliff walls, shown in enough detail that Joel and his colleagues could be sure they are sedimentary rocks, formed by running water. The rivers would have continuously shifted their gullies, creating sandbanks.

The images also show that the river processes that formed these rocks occurred over a very long time period.

Joel explains, “The rivers that formed these rocks weren’t just a one-off event — they were probably active for tens to hundreds of thousands of years.”

This evidence bolsters hope that sedimentary rocks from this period could be ideal for the search for evidence of past life on Mars.

William McMahon, co-lead author of the paper, says, ‘Here on Earth, sedimentary rocks have been used by geologists for generations to place constraints on what conditions were like on our planet millions or even billions of years ago.

“Now we have the technology to extend this methodology to another terrestrial planet, Mars, which hosts an ancient sedimentary rock record that extends even further back in time than our own.”

ExoMars Rover Prototype Bruno

The ExoMars rover prototype Bruno. ExoMars 2020 will be the first mission to take core samples from deep within the Martian surface. Credit: Natural History Museum


In 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) is due to launch the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars Rover, which will explore similar terrains to determine whether there has ever been life on Mars, and to better understand the history of water on the planet.

Joel and his colleagues at the Museum will help the ESA team to interpret the rover’s findings. These new images are a great sign that the rover could be successful in its mission.

Read Reading Martian Rocks in Unparalleled Detail to Find Ancient Water on Mars for more on this research.

Reference: “Sustained fluvial deposition recorded in Mars’ Noachian stratigraphic record” by Francesco Salese, William J. McMahon, Matthew R. Balme, Veronique Ansan, Joel M. Davis and Maarten G. Kleinhans, 5 May 2020, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15622-0

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