Boiling water may be behind Mars' 'levitating sand'

A new study may explain how Mars' craters formed despite their being almost no water on the planet.
By Joseph Scalise | Nov 01, 2017
A team of researchers from Open University may have finally discovered how land features on Mars are formed without significant amounts of water.

Astronomers have long been aware that the Martian surface has so-called "mass-wasting" features that occur as a result of sediment being transported down a slope. However, many people have debated on how they form.

In the new study, the team uncovered evidence that suggests the levitation effect noted in the process is caused by low-pressurized boiling water that rapidly transports sediments and sand across the surface.

Scientists found the new evidence by conducting a series of experiments at the OU Mars Simulation Chamber. This revealed the thin atmosphere of Mars, along with periods of relatively warm surface temperatures, cause water that flows on the Martian surface to boil. That roiling liquid is able to then move large amounts of sands and other sediment.

The team also discovered that relatively small amounts of water on the Martian surface may form the different geological features across the planet. However, scientists do note that if the dust does levitate, the phenomenon only occurs in a few areas.

"The key thing I wonder is whether there are very many environments that could have enough water to see these effects," said Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder who was not involved in the research, according to Tech Times. "While gullies and the briny flows called recurring slope lineae appear wet, there is a chance they may actually be dry landslides."

This discovery is important because, as the phenomenon does not happen on Earth, it could help astronomers understand similar processes on other planets. It also suggests that researchers may have underestimatedthe effects of small amounts of flowing water on Mars.

"Sediment levitation must therefore be considered when evaluating the formation of recent and present-day martian mass wasting features, as much less water may be required to form such features than previously thought," the researchers wrote in their study.

The team plans to expand on the findings by further analyzing the levitation process. However, that is not going to be easy to do. The orbiters around the planet are not able to make out such fine surface detail, and rovers are not allowed near any wet locations for fear of contamination. As a result, all current research will be confined to a lab.


The new study is published in the journalNature Communications.


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