An artist's impression of water on the surface of ancient Mars

Artist’s impression of water on the surface of Mars © NASA JPL GSFC Kevin Gill

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Ancient Martian rivers revealed in more detail than ever before

A team of scientists, led by Dr Francesco Salese, a geologist at Utrecht University and senior scientist at the International Research School of Planetary Sciences, and including Dr Joel Davis, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum, have revealed ancient Martian rivers in unprecedented detail for the first time.

  • Further proof that water flowed on the surface of Mars as life evolved on Earth
  • Water may have flowed on the surface for hundreds of thousands of years
  • Data will aid in future Mars rovers search for life on the red planet

The team have studied newly captured high-resolution satellite images of a rocky Martian cliff face, revealing that it was formed by flowing rivers more than 3.7 billion years ago at a time when life on earth had just started to evolve.

Dr Davis says, 'We've never seen an outcrop with this amount of detail on it that we can definitely say is so old. This is one more piece of the puzzle in the search for ancient life on Mars, providing novel insight into just how much water occupied these ancient landscapes.'

The images were taken by NASA's High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. A camera which is able to take detailed images of the surface down to a meter across whilst orbiting the planet from a distance of 400km away.

The researchers examined images taken of the inside of the Hellas Impact Crater, in the southern Martian hemisphere, one of the largest impact craters in the solar system. These revealed a 200-metre-thick stack of layered rocks within the cliff walls, shown in enough detail to be identified as being formed by running water.

It has been further deduced that the rivers formed these rocks over a very long time period, as evidenced by a multitude of sandbanks created from shifting gullies.

Dr Davis explains, 'The rivers that formed these rocks weren't just a one-off event - they were probably active for tens to hundreds of thousands of years.'

This evidence bolsters hope that sedimentary rocks from this period could be the ideal targets for the search for evidence of past life on Mars.

William McMahon, co-lead author of the paper, says, 'Here on Earth, sedimentary rocks have been used by geologists for generations to place constraints on what conditions were like on our planet millions or even billions of years ago.’

'Now we have the technology to extend this methodology to another terrestrial planet, Mars, which hosts an ancient sedimentary rock record that extends even further back in time than our own.'

Dr Davis and his colleagues at the Natural History Museum are now working as part of an international team to investigate the landing site for the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars Rover, due to launch in 2022. The rover will explore similar terrains to determine if there has ever been life on Mars, and to understand the history of water on the planet.

These findings were made possible through the efforts of an international team including Geologists Dr Francesco Salese and Dr William McMahon from Utrecht University and Dr Matt Balme at the Open University. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

Notes to Editors

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The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year, our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.

Utrecht University is a wide-range, international research university of high standing. We have a strong connection to the city of Utrecht and our roots lie deep in the past (1636).

Our interdisciplinary research targets four themes: Life Sciences, Pathways to Sustainability, Dynamics of Youth and Institutions for Open Societies. We are a trailblazer in the field of modernising educational concepts. Our student pass rate is high.

Our teaching and research are strongly connected. We work together in tight communities. We believe diversity is important.