Features on Mars which had been attributed to flowing salty water could be caused by an altogether more explosive reason, according to new research published this week in Nature Geoscience. Scientists at The Open University used a unique Mars simulation chamber to conduct experiments and found that the streaks and slopes on the planet’s surface could be down to liquid water boiling whilst flowing under the low pressure of a thin atmosphere.
The low pressure on the surface of Mars means that water is not stable for long and will either quickly freeze or boil; liquid water therefore exists only very temporarily. The streaks and slopes that have been observed and seen to lengthen on the planet during its summer had previously been attributed to flowing salty water. However, the new research indicates the reason for this could be sand particles on the planet’s surface being ejected by the rapidly boiling liquid.
Mars simulation chamber reveals how sand grains are disrupted
Scientists at The Open University used the Mars simulation chamber to conduct experiments of water flowing down a slope of martian surface material, under martian atmospheric temperatures and pressures. A block of ice was placed on top of a sandy slope and under Earth-like conditions, little change was observed to the slope as the ice melted and trickled downwards.
Using the chamber, the experiment was repeated but under simulated Mars conditions. With the lower air pressure, the melting water rapidly boiled as it flowed and disrupted the sand by explosively ejecting the surface material, with grains piling up and forming small channels which resembled those observed on the surface of Mars.
Watch the experiment in action:
Dr Manish Patel, who was part of the research team and responsible for the simulation chamber said:
“Water on Mars is generally unstable and it’s this sudden boiling during the flow of the water which is the key process that could be causing these small channels on the surface. This discovery has the potential to change how we interpret these kinds of geomorphological flow features on surface of Mars, and clearly shows us that there are important differences in how water-related debris flows occur on Earth and Mars.”
Find out more about the mission to Mars which The Open University is involved in.