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Peek under Mars' surface reveals ancient channels

These images show a network of buried channels draining from the giant Valles Marineris canyon into the wide, flat area of the north, according to NASA. The channels are nearly 200 kilometers wide.  

In this story:

Red planet receives an 'MRI'

Two distinct crust regions


March 10, 2000
Web posted at: 1:50 p.m. EST (1850 GMT)

GREENBELT, Maryland (CNN) -- Peering under the surface of Mars with new laser-assisted techniques, NASA scientists have uncovered evidence of wide, ancient channels that could have formed from the flow of enormous volumes of water, the space agency announced Friday.

NASA also unveiled dramatic video simulations of the surface of the red planet, taking viewers on a breathtaking ride over features like the Valles Marineris, a chasm as long as the United States, and the north polar cap, which holds as much water as the Great Lakes.

"It's just a spectacular, otherworldly landscape," NASA scientist Jim Garvin told CNN. "We are seeing the real Mars, making science fiction science fact."

Red planet receives an 'MRI'

When Mars was young, enormous water flows could have created the extensive underground channels revealed in images of the martian interior derived from Mars Global Surveyor data, NASA researchers said.


Flights over martian terrain

These digital simulations were created by NASA from data gathered by Mars Global Surveyor

2,216 K / 28.12 sec. / 240x180
Across the Hellas Impact Basin

1,339 K / 22.03 sec. / 240x180
Over the northern polar cap

2,915 K / 28.26 sec. / 240x180 Through the giant canyon Valles Marineris

"It's like seeing the human body with an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image). Without drilling into the surface, we can see beneath what we see from space," said Garvin, who works for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The new data from the orbiter suggest that at some point in the planet's history, the flat northern lowlands suffered blistering heat, experienced rapid cooling, then drowned under floods that formed an ocean.

The planet "was in a tremendous state of upheaval," Garvin said.

Channels beneath the northern lowlands could have flowed from Valles Marineris and the Chryse and Kasei Valles regions, NASA scientists said. The researchers used gravity and elevation measurements from MGS to spot the features, about 125 miles (200 km) wide and more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) long.

Water flowing on the surface or underground in channels and later buried by sediments could explain the appearance of the features. Their large size suggests that part or parts of the northern lowlands rapidly filled with water.

Cutaway of the martian interior generated from data gathered by Mars Global Surveyor. Blues indicate thin areas of crust, while reds and whites indicate thicker areas.  

The prospect of large amounts of past water excites planetary scientists, who wonder if the red planet ever was alive.

"The ancient water courses, we believe, may have flowed into a possible ocean, a harbinger of a time in Mars' past that could have had life," Garvin said.

Two distinct crust regions

Measuring gravity and topography, the orbiter's laser instruments revealed much about the crust of the red planet. The thick, solid layer offers geologic clues about interior melting and heat loss over time.

"The crustal thickness map shows that ... Mars has two distinct crustal provinces," Mars researcher Maria Zuber said in a statement.

The crust beneath the southern highlands and Tharsis volcanic province, estimated at 50 miles (80 km) thick, incrementally thins from south to north.

However, the crust of northern lowlands and Arabia Terra region of the southern highlands have a consistent thickness of about 22 miles (35 km).

The $150 million Mars Global Surveyor mission was launched in 1996. The orbiter began mapping the red planet the following year.

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Mars Global Surveyor home page
NASA Homepage

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