Perseverance rover shows up Curiosity with discovery of Martian water park

Latest snaps have NASA rethinking scale of rivers on the Red Planet

Never mind the trickling stream that NASA's Curiosity rover spotted on Mars near Mount Sharp, young upstart Perseverance has found proof of water that flowed faster and at greater depths than previous evidence indicated.

Rather than the downhill streams photographed by Curiosity earlier this year, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory overseeing the Perseverance mission said the coarse sediment grains and cobbles found by their rover in the Jezero Crater point to much more powerful water flows than ever suspected on Mars.

The shape of loose rocks found by Perseverance "indicate a high-energy river that's truckin' and carrying a lot of debris. The more powerful the flow of water, the more easily it's able to move larger pieces of material," said Libby Ives, a postdoctoral researcher at JPL with a background in studying Earth's waterways.

Perseverance, which touched down in Mars's Jezero Crater in 2021, found evidence for the fast-flowing river when it visited a region of Jezero filled with curved bands of layered rock that scientists dubbed "the curvilinear unit" when they spotted it from space earlier.

While the images captured at one site, nicknamed Skrinkle Haven, give scientists little doubt there was a powerful stream in the area, they're still not sure whether it was a large winding river like the Mississippi or a braided river that twists and splits into smaller channels, leaving behind sandbar islands. 

Some of that confusion is due to the fact the rocks probably don't give a true impression of the depth of the streams that flowed over them, said Caltech's Michael Lamb, a river specialist who has collaborated with the Perseverance team. "The wind has acted like a scalpel that has cut the tops off these deposits," he said.

That makes photos of a location in the curvilinear unit a quarter mile from Skrinkle Haven, a lone rocky hill called "Pinestand," even more significant: it's 66 feet tall, which defies understanding of formations caused by Earth rivers.


Pinestand in the curvilinear unit of Mars' Jezero Crater

"These layers are anomalously tall for rivers on Earth … But at the same time, the most common way to create these kinds of landforms would be a river," Ives said of Pinestand.

Down on curvilinear creek

"It's the first time we're seeing environments like this on Mars," said Perseverance's deputy project scientist, Katie Stack Morgan, who believes the find means researchers will need to think about rivers on Mars "on a different scale" than previously thought.

Discoveries like these are crucial to helping scientists narrow their search for life, extinct or otherwise, on Mars that could be hibernating deep under the surface of the now-dry planet or preserved as fossils in Martian river rock.

A key part of Perseverance's mission is the search for Martian life, NASA said, and the rover's team is continuing to look at images from Perseverance's mastcam (which took the images used in this article) for further evidence of water and extinct life on the Red Planet.

Along with examining photographs, the team will also be using Perseverance's ground-penetrating radar to look for additional evidence of water flow while the rover scouts Mars in advance of human exploration. ®

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