Research Reveals, Red Planet's Rivers Were Wider Than Those On Earth Today

Olive Hawkins
March 30, 2019

Exploration on other planets has always been restricted to rovers on the ground, but engineers are making progress in their ambitious plans to launch a drone-like device into the skies above the Red Planet for the first time, which they hope will reveal a new perspective on the Martian surface.

While scientists around the world are still trying to figure out where the liquid water on Mars has gone, a group of researchers believe Martian rivers existed for more than a billion years.

According to our current climate models of Mars, that just shouldn't happen - there's no way the thinning Martian atmosphere could have supported such rivers. "The largest river in our database has a width of around one kilometer [0.6 miles], which is wider than the MS at St. Louis", study author Edwin Kite, from the University of Chicago, told Newsweek. This is long after the Red Planet started to lose its atmosphere, suggesting some "unknown mechanism" of climate-driven precipitation was taking place as it dried out. Presently, a new study published March 27 in the journal Science Advances lists those rivers and reports that their waters likely streamed vigorously well into the last epoch, before Mars completely evaporated.

Mars is also thought to have had river systems and major flooding events that would have carved out canyons.

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For those trying to understand Mars's ancient climate, the results provide guidance, Kite said, noting that the size of the rivers implies that water flowed continuously, not just at high noon. If the dates for these massive rivers are correct, the findings could suggest that Mars' late-stage atmosphere disappeared faster than previously calculated, or that there were other drivers of precipitation under low-atmosphere conditions, the researchers say. Now we know Mars really was once criss-crossed with rivers twice as wide as any on Earth, making the chance of finding residual alien life forms far more likely.

It should be noted that the discovery of rivers on Mars has made it hard for scientists to work on Mars' ancient climate modelling.

The width and steepness of the channels and size of rounded pebbles they contained provided clues about the volume and force of water that once flowed through them. "Things were always kind of right at the edge of being able to have water flowing across the surface", Alan Howard of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, not involved in the study, says. That suggests the average daytime temperatures were above the freezing point, pointing toward a strong greenhouse effect. "You would expect them to wane gradually over time, but that's not what we see", Kite said. "The wettest day of the year is still very wet".

It is possible the climate had a sort of "on/off" switch, which tipped back and forth between dry and wet cycles, Kite said. Which is wrong: "the climate models, the atmosphere evolution models, or our basic understanding of inner solar system chronology?" he said.

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