Pathfinder finds evidence of ancient flood on the Red Planet

By EXN Staff

New colour photographs from Mars suggest that catastrophic floods once washed over the Red Planet billions of years ago.

 The pictures taken by the Mars Pathfinder show boulders stacked up against each other by powerful currents and immense ripples in the rocky landscape. Stains on the planet’s surface indicate that puddles left by the flood evaporated slowly and may have left salty residues.

"This is huge," Pathfinder scientist Michael Malin told Associated Press. "I’m in hog heaven looking at these pictures of Mars."

Scientists estimate that the flooding was hundreds of kilometres wide, hundreds of metres deep and moved at a rate of one million cubic meters per second. Malin estimated that the flood took place between one billion and three billion years ago.

 Although geologists have known since the Viking mission 21 years ago that flood swept across the Red Planet these images are the best evidence that the ancient flooding occurred.

Scientists believe that frozen water is still trapped beneath the arid Martian surface and in its northern polar cap. But the images raise important questions such as: Where did the flood go? Could this evidence of liquid water – the key ingredient for life – mean that life once existed on the planet?

The pathfinder mission will not answer the ever-present ‘life on Mars’ question but other expeditions might. Four more spacecraft will be sent to the Red Planet over the next eight years to determine whether primitive life forms ever existed.

Meanwhile the Pathfinder’s roving vehicle Sojourner will continue its exploration of the rocky Martian surface. So far the Sojourner has only rolled a few metres from the Pathfinder’s lander but in a few more days it will be sent on longer, more ambitious treks.

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