Red Planet Riviera: Ancient Mars Coastline Found?

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With the help of rover Curiosity, we now know that ancient Mars had large quantities of liquid water flowing across its surface. However, evidence for large bodies of water — i.e. oceans — has been hard to come by. But using high-resolution orbital data, Caltech scientists now think they’ve found a long-dry river delta that once flowed into a very large body of water. Welcome to the Aeolis Riviera — the strongest evidence yet for a Martian coastline.

PHOTOS: The Psychedelic Landscape of Mars

Aeolis Dorsa is a vast plain about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) east of Gale Crater, where NASA’s rover Curiosity is currently exploring. Using high-resolution observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, the Caltech team spotted what appears to be a river delta leading to a large depression, a candidate for the basin of an ancient ocean.

“Scientists have long hypothesized that the northern lowlands of Mars are a dried-up ocean bottom, but no one yet has found the smoking gun,” said Mike Lamb, assistant professor of geology at Caltech and a co-investigator of this research, in a news release. The research has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

It is thought that large regions of the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere was once covered in water as the majority of the landmass is at a lower elevation than the southern hemisphere. This is exactly where you’d expect to see evidence of ancient large bodies of water. But over the aeons, the evidence has weathered away, making any positive identification of such features difficult.

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The river delta candidate leading into Aeolis Dorsa.

While analyzing an area inside Aeolis Dorsa, however, the researchers noticed a collection of inverted channels. On Mars, these raised ridges were likely caused by the deposition of rocks and other material by the flow of water down river channels. Long after the rivers ran dry, the rocky deposits remained behind. The softer sediment surrounding the river channels eventually weathered away, blasted by the Martian wind and other erosion processes. However, the deposited rocks, once found at the bottom of the rivers, were immune to this weathering, causing them to rise out of the landscape as ridges, tracing the paths of ancient riverbeds.

Looking down from its orbit, the MRO has been able to image these veined, raised structures and found what appears to be an ancient river delta leading into the depressed portion of Aeolis Dorsa.

On Earth, river deltas form at the mouths of rivers connecting to seas and oceans. The Nile Delta is a classic example, where the water from the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea. Sediment has built up at the Nile’s mouth to create fanned, multichannel features, leading to a sudden drop-off — i.e. the sea.

However, understanding which way the water would have been flowing in an ancient Mars “river delta candidate” can be challenging. Could the water actually have been flowing the other way? Perhaps this isn’t a delta at all; it could be reversed — several streams and small river tributaries flowing into a larger channel.

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Because of HiRISE’s precision, high-resolution 3D images could be created to map which direction the landscape is sloping, revealing the direction of water flow. Indeed, the water would have been flowing downhill, creating a fan-like delta and the drop-off at the end of this Mars delta could be the beginning of an ocean basin. Therefore this could be the strongest evidence yet of a Martian coastline.

“This is probably one of the most convincing pieces of evidence of a delta in an unconfined region — and a delta points to the existence of a large body of water in the northern hemisphere of Mars,” said Roman DiBiase, Caltech postdoctoral scholar and lead author of the paper.

Although more work is needed, the researchers estimate that the “ocean” would have, at least, covered Aeolis Dorsa, all 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) of it. To compare with a terrestrial mass of water, this is larger than Lake Superior (82,414 square kilometers or 31,820 square miles).

In the year since Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater, the mission has uncovered incredible insights to the water history of the Red Planet inside a comparatively small impact crater. Imagine what a long-duration rover mission to a river delta would reveal. I for one would love to see a robotic mission clawing through the exposed ridges of ancient riverbed, hunting down evidence for the past habitability of an ancient Mars coastline.

Image credit: DiBiase et al./Journal of Geophysical Research/NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/NASA Landsat

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