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Curiosity finds ancient streambed on Mars

UC DAVIS (US) — Rounded pebbles on the surface of Mars indicate that a stream once flowed on the red planet, according to a new study.

Rounded pebbles of this size are known to form only when transported through water over long distances. They were discovered between the north rim of the planet’s Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the crater.

These two images compare the outcrop of rocks on Mars (left) with similar rocks seen on Earth. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI)

The finding, published in Science, represents the first on-site evidence of sustained water flows on the Mars landscape, and supports prospects that the planet could once have been able to host life.

Finding the rounded pebbles, which were deposited more than 2 billion years ago, was a matter of landing in the right place, says co-author Dawn Sumner, a geologist at University of California, Davis.

“The main reason we chose Gale Crater as a landing site was to look at the layered rocks at the base of Mount Sharp, about five miles away,” she says.

“We knew there was an alluvial fan in the landing area, a cone-shaped deposit of sediment that requires flowing water to form. These sorts of pebbles are likely because of that environment. So while we didn’t choose Gale Crater for this purpose, we were hoping to find something like this.”

The finding comes from Curiosity’s exploration of the Mars surface during its first 100 sols (102.7 days on Earth), or Martian days. During that time, the rover traveled about a quarter mile from its landing site, examining multiple outcrops of pebble-rich slabs.

Curiosity took high-resolution images of these pebbles at three locations known as Goulburn, Link, and Hottah. The grain size, roundness, and other characteristics of the pebbles led the researchers to conclude they had been transported by water.

Sumner says the discovery involves some of the most basic principles of geology. “On the first day of my sedimentary class, I have the students measure grain size and the rounding,” Sumner says. “It’s simple, and it’s important.”

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech); University of California, Berkeley; Princeton University; and Cornell University, among others, contributed to the study.

Source: UC Davis

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