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article imageStudy: Mars once had lakes made of melted ice

By Bob Ewing     Jan 5, 2010 in Science
Research suggests that during the Hesperian Epoch, approximately 3 billion years ago, Mars had lakes made of melted ice.
Researchers from Imperial College London and University College London (UCL) have published a report that suggests Mars was warm enough to sustain lakes three billion years ago. This was a period was previously considered to be too cold and arid to sustain water on the surface.
The report is published in the journal Geology.
The media release says the research says Mars had lakes made of melted ice, each around 20km wide, along parts of the equator, warm enough for liquid water to be sustained.
Lead author of the study, Dr Nicholas Warner, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said in the release:
“Most of the research on Mars has focused on its early history and the recent past. Scientists had largely overlooked the Hesperian Epoch as it was thought that Mars was then a frozen wasteland. Excitingly, our study now shows that this middle period in Mars’ history was much more dynamic than we previously thought.”
Images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were used to analyze several flat-floored depressions located above Ares Vallis. The Ares Vallis is a giant gorge that runs 2,000 km across the equator of Mars.
The team examined the depressions and found a series of small sinuous channels that connected them together. The study says these channels could only be formed by running water, and not by ice turning directly into gas.
The scientists compared the Mars images to images of thermokarst landscapes that are found on Earth today, in places such as Siberia and Alaska. Thermokarst landscapes are areas where permafrost is melting, creating lakes that are interconnected by the same type of drainage channels found on Mars.
Professor Jan-Peter Muller, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Department of Space Climate Physics at University College London, said in the release, “We can now model the 3D shape of Mars’ surface down to sub-metre resolution, at least as good as any commercial satellite orbiting the Earth. This allows us to test our hypotheses in a much more rigorous manner than ever before.”
The team’s next move will see them extend their survey to other areas along the equator of Mars so that they can determine how widespread these lakes were during the Hesperian Epoch.
The study was collaboration between the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London and Space Physics at UCL. The project was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust.
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