Mars' contours were shaped by heavy rain, says new study

18 May 2017

Heavy rain may have reshaped the craters on Mars carved out river-like channels on its surface billions of years ago, a new study has found.

The study's authors, Robert Craddock and Ralph Lorenz from Johns Hopkins University in the US, say changes in the atmosphere on the Red Planet made it rain harder and harder, which had a similar effect on the planet's surface as seen on Earth.

The fourth planet from the sun, Mars has geological features similar to the earth and moon, such as craters and valleys, many of which were formed through rainfall.

Although there is a growing body of evidence that there was once water on Mars, it does not rain there now.

The new study shows that there was rainfall in the past, and that it was heavy enough to change the planet's surface. Valley networks on Mars show evidence of surface runoff driven by rainfall.

''Many people have analysed the nature of rainfall on earth, but no one had thought to apply the physics to understanding the early Martian atmosphere,'' said Craddock.

To understand how rainfall on Mars changed over time, the researchers had to consider how its atmosphere has changed. When Mars first formed 4.5 billion years ago, it had a much more substantial atmosphere with a higher pressure than it does now. This pressure influences the size of the raindrops and how hard they fall.

Early on in the planet's existence, water droplets would have been very small, producing something like fog rather than rain; this would not have been capable of carving out the planet we know today. As the atmospheric pressure decreased over millions of years, raindrops got bigger and rainfall became heavy enough to cut into the soil and start to alter the craters. The water could then be channelled and able to cut through the planet's surface, creating valleys.

''By using basic physical principles to understand the relationship between the atmosphere, raindrop size and rainfall intensity, we have shown that Mars would have seen some pretty big raindrops that would have been able to make more drastic changes to the surface than the earlier fog-like droplets,'' said Lorenz.

The researchers showed that very early on, the atmospheric pressure on Mars would have been about 4 bars (the earth's surface today is 1 bar) and the raindrops at this pressure could not have been bigger than three millimetres across, which would not have penetrated the soil.

As the atmospheric pressure fell to 1.5 bars, the droplets could have grown and fallen harder, cutting into the soil. In Martian conditions at that time, had the pressure been the same as we have on earth, raindrops would have been about 7.3 millimetres - a millimetre bigger than on earth.

''It's unlikely that rainfall on early Mars would have been dramatically different than what's described in our paper. Our findings provide new, more definitive, constraints about the history of water and the climate on Mars,'' said Craddock.

The study is published in the journal Icarus.

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