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Mars orbiters see clues to possible water flows

The new clues include corresponding seasonal changes in iron minerals on the same slopes and a survey of ground temperatures and other traits at active sites.
dark flows on Mars
This image combines a photograph of seasonal dark flows on a martian slope with a grid of colors based on data collected by a mineral-mapping spectrometer observing the same area.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/JHU-APL
NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars have returned clues for understanding seasonal features that are the strongest indication of possible liquid water that may exist today on the Red Planet.

The features are dark, finger-like markings that advance down some martian slopes when temperatures rise. The new clues include corresponding seasonal changes in iron minerals on the same slopes and a survey of ground temperatures and other traits at active sites. These support a suggestion that brines with an iron-mineral antifreeze, such as ferric sulfate, may flow seasonally, though there are still other possible explanations.

Researchers call these dark flows “recurring slope lineae.” As a result, RSL has become one of the hottest acronyms at meetings of Mars scientists.

“We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water in RSL, although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water,” said Lujendra Ojha from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He originally discovered them while at the University of Arizona, Tucson, three years ago, in images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Ojha and James Wray of Georgia Tech more recently looked at 13 confirmed RSL sites using images from the same orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument. They searched for minerals that RSL might leave in their wake as a way of understanding the nature of these features: Water-related or not?

They didn’t find any spectral signature tied to water or salts, but they did find distinct and consistent spectral signatures of ferric and ferrous minerals at most of the sites. These iron-bearing minerals were more abundant or featured distinct grain sizes in RSL-related materials as compared to non-RSL slopes.

Ojha said, “Just like the RSL themselves, the strength of the spectral signatures varies according to the seasons. They’re stronger when it’s warmer and less significant when it’s colder.”

One possible explanation for these changes is a sorting of grain sizes, such as removal of fine dust from the surface, which could result from either a wet process or dry one. Two other possible explanations are an increase in the more oxidized (ferric) component of the minerals or an overall darkening due to moisture. Either of these would point to water, even though no water was directly detected. The spectral observations might miss the presence of water, because the dark flows are much narrower than the area of ground sampled with each CRISM reading. Also, the orbital observations have been made only in afternoons and could miss morning moisture.

The leading hypothesis for these features is the flow of near-surface water, kept liquid by salts depressing the freezing point of pure water. “The flow of water, even briny water, anywhere on Mars today would be a major discovery, impacting our understanding of present climate change on Mars and possibly indicating potential habitats for life near the surface on modern Mars,” said Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In related research, the Georgia Tech scientists and colleagues at the University of Arizona; U.S. Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Arizona; and Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, used the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to look for patterns in where and when the dark seasonal flows exist on Mars. Their results indicate that many sites with slopes, latitudes, and temperatures matching known RSL sites do not have any evident RSL.

They hunted for areas that were ideal locations for RSL formation — areas near the southern mid-latitudes on rocky cliffs. They found 200, but barely any of them had RSL. “Only 13 of the 200 locations had confirmed RSL,” said Ojha. “The fact that RSL occur in a few sites and not others indicates additional unknown factors such as availability of water or salts may play a crucial role in RSL formation.”

They compared new observations with images from previous years, revealing that RSL are much more abundant some years than others.

“NASA likes to ‘follow the water’ in exploring the Red Planet, so we’d like to know in advance when and where it will appear,” Wray said. “RSL have rekindled our hope of accessing modern water, but forecasting wet conditions remains a challenge.”
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