Ferocious floods on an inconceivable scale are now known to have once filled Gale Crater on the Red Planet’s equator 4 billion years ago, NASA has announced. The update comes after the Curiosity Rover discovered parts of the Red Planet were once swamped by an ancient ‘megaflood’. This adds to the accumulating evidence alien life really may have once thrived on this once-wet planet.
The landmark new study was derived from the latest data collected by NASA’s Curiosity rover.
So early Mars was a habitable planet. Was it inhabited? That’s a question that the next rover Perseverance … will help to answer
Dr Alberto Fairén
Researchers now believe the rampaging megaflood was probably triggered by the heat from an apocalyptic asteroid impact, which unleashed vast quantities of ice stored on the Martian surface.
Dr Alberto Fairén, a College of Arts and Sciences astrobiologist, thinks evidence for this occurrence is found in gigantic ripples that are tell-tale evidence of similar geologic structures here on Earth.
He said: “We identified megafloods for the first time using detailed sedimentological data observed by the rover Curiosity.
“Deposits left behind by megafloods had not been previously identified with orbiter data.”
Such geological features including the work of water and wind have been frozen in time on Mars in the same way as on Earth.
These features are strongly associated with processes responsible for shaping the surface of both planets in the past.
This includes the occurrence of huge wave-shaped features in sedimentary layers of the Martian Gale crater 350ft (106m) feet apart.
The antidunes indicate flowing megafloods at the bottom of Gale Crater as far back as 4 billion years ago.
These are almost exactly identical to the features formed by melting ice on Earth roughly 2 million years ago.
The most likely cause of the epic flooding was the melting of ice from heat generated by a large impact event.
This in turn spewed carbon dioxide and methane from the Red Planet’s frozen reservoirs.
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The resulting water vapour and release of gases combined to produce a relatively brief period of warm and wet conditions on Mars.
Heavy condensation created water vapour clouds and these in turn created torrential rain, potentially on a planetary scale.
The theory suggests this water flowed into Gale Crater then combined with water arriving from Mount Sharp to generate gigantic flash floods.
These deposited gravel ridges in the Hummocky Plains Unit and band formations in the Striated Unit.
The NASA team in charge of Curiosity rover has previously established Gale Crater was once home to persistent lakes and streams in its ancient past.
These long-lived bodies of water are good indicators that the crater, as well as Mount Sharp within it, were capable of supporting microbial alien life.
Dr Fairén said: “Early Mars was an extremely active planet from a geological point of view.
“The planet had the conditions needed to support the presence of liquid water on the surface – and on Earth, where there’s water, there’s life.
“So early Mars was a habitable planet,” he said. “Was it inhabited? That’s a question that the next rover Perseverance … will help to answer.”
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