New images captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal stunning evidence of massive ice flows on the surface of Mars, indicating that liquid water persisted on the planet’s surface billions of years ago. These discoveries reinforce Mars’ potential to have once harbored microbial life, with promising implications for future exploration.
Ancient Ice Flows Seen from Orbit
On December 15th, 2023, NASA published images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing smooth, rounded ridges winding down crater walls and slopes on the Red Planet . These formations are evidence of massive ice flows occurring billions of years ago when the tilt of Mars’ rotation axis allowed for cyclical periods of warmer summers causing subsurface ice to melt .
Ice flows detected on a crater wall, image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The discovery indicates liquid water once persisted and flowed extensively across the Martian surface, dramatically transforming the landscape over long periods. While ice currently exists beneath the surface, these images provide confirmations that Mars was once wetter and warmer – conditions potentially suitable for hosting microbial life .
Carved Markings Show Liquid Water Persisted
In related news reported December 16th, unusual spiral troughs were imaged carved into a region of the Martian surface . While the origin of the markings is still uncertain, leading explanations suggest flowing liquid water persisted much later into Mars’s history than previously thought.
One possibility is that the markings were formed by gradual seepage of subsurface water that evaporated upon reaching the surface. Their spiral shape could have resulted from specific conditions of the landscape and prevailing winds. While further analysis is still needed, these terrain features provide further evidence that liquid water previously existed and shaped significant portions Mars’ surface.
|> 3 Billion Years Ago
|Ice flows carve ridges and valleys down slopes
|Abundant surface water in certain periods
|< 3 Billion Years Ago
|Carved spiral troughs form more recently
|Liquid water persisted much later into Mars’ history
Table 1 – Comparison of timing for ancient water indicators on Mars
Rover Confirms Wet Environment Existed Billions of Years Ago
The recent orbiter discoveries build upon evidence sent back by the Perseverance Rover indicating a lake and river delta existed 3.5 billion years ago within the rover’s exploration site of Jezero Crater . These incredibly preserved geological features show the crater once housed a body of water substantially larger than previous estimates.
Analysis of sedimentary rocks collected by the rover confirms the past lake environment met the chemical conditions necessary to support microbial life forms. Specifically, carbonate minerals forming the rocks indicate neutral pH water conditions persisted over substantial time periods . The rover also detected high levels of sulfate salts and other organic molecules that would have provided chemical gradients where life could have thrived.
Together, these rover analysis and orbital images demonstrate the Red Planet was once warmer and wetter – prime conditions for the formation of biological life. As such, NASA’s Mars exploration program will continue searching for definitive signs of past martian organisms.
Water May Still Flow on Present-Day Mars
Besides revelations about Mars’ ancient climate, there are also indications that liquid water may still be actively flowing on the planet’s surface today. Photos captured in late 2022 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed thin dark lines tracking down crater walls and other slopes during warmer months . While the lines have yet to be confirmed as trickling salty brines, they are possibly the best current evidence for liquid water under Mars’ current freezing climate.
If the streaks are proven to be flowing brines, it would make drilling operations to access subsurface water reserves significantly easier. Combined with Mars’ thin carbon dioxide atmosphere able to block solar radiation, the potential presence of accessible liquid water makes the planet an increasingly suitable target for future human exploration and settlement.
Conclusion: Mars May Have Harbored Past Life and Could Host Humans
The collective findings from decades of Mars observation paint an emerging picture of a planet that was once warmer, wetter and could have supported microbial life billions of years ago. The multitude of evidence ranging from ancient lake beds, river deltas and massive ice flows indicate liquid water extensively shaped and existed on Mars’ surface over long epochs when conditions allowed it.
While questions remain about how late into Mars’ history liquid water persisted, the implications are profound in the search for signs of past potential Martian lifeforms. Furthermore, evidence that salty liquid water could still be flowing on Mars today along with subsurface ice reserves, mean key resources exist to sustain future human exploration. As such, NASA and other space agencies are increasingly viewing Mars as a prime candidate for future crewed missions and extraterrestrial settlement.
So while Mars today appears as a frozen barren wasteland, mounting evidence shows the Red Planet was once blue like Earth – wet enough for life to begin and take hold. And soon humans may arrive to unlock Mars’ lingering secrets of whether we are alone in this universe or one day discover our distant cousins.
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