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Snow on Mars likely formed Red Planet's famed valleys

Brown University research compared Mars geography to similar patterns found in ... Hawaii.

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This westward view of Mars taken by the Odyssey orbiter shows a checkerboard named Noctis Labyrinthus, which formed when the Martian crust stretched and fractured, west of Valles Marineris. As faults opened, they released subsurface ice and water, causing the ground to collapse. (NASA/Courtesy)

That there was once water on Mars is accepted science. How that water got there, and in what form it took, has been the issue.

Until now, at least, thanks to a researcher at Brown University who has decided it was snow.

Kat Scanlon, a geological sciences graduate student at Brown, came to that conclusion by looking at another hot, far-off destination: Hawaii.

Her breakthrough came by comparing the Red Planet’s famed network of valleys to the Hawaiian Islands thanks to what’s called the orographic effect.

“That’s what immediately came to mind in trying to figure out if these valleys on Mars are precipitation related,” she said.

Scanlon completed graduate work in meteorology in Hawaii, where one goes to find orographic patterns. That is, when tropical winds rise up a mountain, they lose their moisture and dump rain or snow.

With the help of geological sciences Prof. Jim Head, Scanlon’s team studied the valley networks on Mars and determined that runoff from snow likely carved them based on the same effect.

They also ran computer simulations based on our best guesses at Mars’ weather billions of years ago, when the valleys formed, and determined that conditions were right and snowfall was likely.

The research, however, doesn’t exclude the chance rain once fell on Mars.

“The next step is to do some snowmelt modeling,” Scanlon said. “The question is, how fast can you melt a giant snow bank? Do you need rain? Is it even possible to get enough discharge [to carve the valleys] with just the snowmelt?”

NASA supported Scanlon’s work, which included co-authors Jean-Baptiste Madeleine and François Forget at University of Paris, and Robin Wordsworth of the University of Chicago.

Her research appears in a recent issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

So we know there was likely snow on Mars billions of years ago, but is that important? Well, it might be, because people keep threatening to move there.

After the reality TV shows and billionaire adventurers, an English group has just revealed details about how best to travel there.

We would need to find stores of oxygen and hydrogen to produce fuel for the return flight. One place you can find that would be ice trapped below the Martian surface.

Their research is probably important to Mars One, the group planning to send humans closer to the sun, but not bring them back again.

Scientists at Imperial College in London, along with BBC, put the most recent spin on space travel by proposing a spacecraft that uses centrifugal force to generate gravity and make the trip easier on our bones.

Furthermore, unmanned vehicles would send the return vehicle ahead, and astronauts would assemble it on Mars once they got there, giving them the option of coming home again.

That, I’m sure we can all agree is worth studying. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/science/130724/snow-mars-red-planet-valleys-brown-scanlon-mission