Science and Technology Facilities Council
UK research challenges Martian ice theory
New research published yesterday from a UK-led team challenges the theory that landslides on Mars were caused by ice – despite scientists previously suggesting their presence provides unequivocal evidence of past ice on the red planet.
The UCL-led team have used detailed three-dimensional images of an extensive landslide on Mars, which spans an area more than 55 kilometres wide, to understand how the unusually large and long ridges and furrows formed about 400 million years ago.
Martian landscape annotated with London and global landmarks for scale (credit: Giulia Magnarini)
Until now, it has been suggested that the landslides were formed by layers of rapidly-cooled water – but the STFC-funded research published yesterday shows for the first time that the unique structures on Martian landslides from mountains several kilometres high could have formed at high speeds of up to 360 kilometres per hour due to underlying layers of unstable, fragmented rocks.
This challenges the idea that underlying layers of slippery ice can only explain such long vast ridges, which are found on landslides throughout the Solar System.
First author, PhD student Giulia Magnarini of UCL, yesterday said:
“Landslides on Earth, particularly those on top of glaciers, have been studied by scientists as a proxy for those on Mars because they show similarly shaped ridges and furrows, inferring that Martian landslides also depended on an icy substrate.
“However, we’ve shown that ice is not a prerequisite for such geological structures on Mars, which can form on rough, rocky surfaces. This helps us better understand the shaping of Martian landscapes and has implications for how landslides form on other planetary bodies including Earth and the Moon.”
The team, from UCL, the Natural History Museum in London, Ben Gurion University of Negev in Israel and the University of Wisconsin Madison in the United States, used images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to analyse some of the best-defined landslides remotely.
Co-author, Dr Tom Mitchell, from UCL, yesterday said:
“The Martian landslide we studied covers an area larger than Greater London and the structures within it are huge. Earth might harbour comparable structures but they are harder to see and our landforms erode much faster than those on Mars due to rain.
“While we aren’t ruling out the presence of ice, we know that ice wasn’t needed to form the long run-outs we analysed on Mars. The vibrations of rock particles initiate a convection process that caused upper denser and heavier layers of rock to fall and lighter rocks to rise, similar to what happens in your home where warmed less dense air rises above the radiator. This mechanism drove the flow of deposits up to 40 km away from the mountain source and at phenomenally high speeds.”
The research team includes Apollo 17 astronaut, Professor Harrison Schmitt of the University of Wisconsin Madison, who walked on the Moon in December 1972 and completed geologic fieldwork while on the lunar surface.
More information is available on the UCL website.
Latest News from
Science and Technology Facilities Council
UK and STFC experts honoured in Annual Awards for Astronomy15/01/2020 15:05:00
A number of STFC-supported staff and researchers, including a team from RAL Space and a member of the STFC astronomy grants team, have been honoured for significant achievements in astronomy and geophysics by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in its annual awards.
Smugglers beware! A new generation of cargo scanning is on its way14/01/2020 13:05:00
Particle accelerators at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory are playing an important role in the development of a new generation of cargo screening technologies, capable of detecting firearms, narcotics and weapons hidden within dense cargo.
Global Gravitational Wave Network Detects Another Neutron Star Collision08/01/2020 12:05:00
The international gravitational-wave observatory network, which includes support from UK research teams, has detected what appears to be gravitational ripples from a collision of two neutron stars.
X-rays used to better illuminate how uranium moves in deep underground environments06/01/2020 13:05:00
New research involving x-rays has enabled UK scientists to find a way to improve our understanding of uranium biogeochemistry. This has the potential to help us better store or dispose of radioactive materials in the future.
New Year Honour for Laboratory Director03/01/2020 12:05:00
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) congratulates Dr Andrew Taylor on being honoured in the New Year Honours List 2020.
UKRI SPF Clean Air: Scoping Workshop05/12/2019 09:17:00
The Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) Clean Air programme is planning a series of workshops in early 2020 to scope upcoming funding opportunities through the programme.
UK team involved in successful project that has lowered Dark Matter Experiment's Central Component Nearly a Mile Underground30/10/2019 09:33:00
The largest direct-detection dark matter experiment in the U.S.A., and a project which involves numerous research and engineering teams from the UK, has reached its latest milestone when the crews at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in South Dakota last week strapped the central component of LUX-ZEPLIN, (LZ) below an elevator and s-l-o-w-l-y lowered it 4,850 feet down a shaft formerly used in gold-mining operations.
Telescope instrument opens its 5,000 eyes for the first time29/10/2019 12:47:00
A leading-edge new telescope instrument, designed and built by an international collaboration including the UK, has today aimed its 5,000 fibre-optic eyes at the night sky for the first time.
STFC technicians awarded prestigious new Institute of Physics Technician Award25/10/2019 13:05:00
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) congratulates members of staff Emma Meehan, Ian East and Donna Wyatt on winning two categories in the first ever Institute of Physics Technicians Awards.