NASA’s Mars rover has discovered gravel once carried by the waters of an ancient stream that “ran vigorously” through the area, the US space agency said on Thursday.
Scientists had previously found other evidence of the one-time presence of water on the Red Planet, but this is the first time stream bed gravel has been discovered.
The rocky Hottah outcrop looks “like someone jack-hammered up a slab of city sidewalk, but it’s really a tilted block of an ancient stream bed,” project scientist John Grotzinger said in a statement.
The Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since early last month, also investigated a second outcrop known as Link.
The pictures transmitted by Curiosity show the pebbles have been cemented into layers of conglomerate rock at a site between the north rim of the Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is heading.
The sizes and the shapes of the rocks give an idea of the speed and the depth of the stream, NASA said.
“The shapes tell you they were transported and the sizes tell you they couldn’t be transported by wind. They were transported by water flow,” Curiosity scientist Rebecca Williams said.
Scientists estimate the water was moving at a brisk pace of three feet per second, somewhere between ankle and hip deep.
“This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars,” Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley, said.
“This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it,” he added.
Some of the rocks are rounded, indicating they traveled a long distance from above the rim, NASA said.
Thanks to imagery previously captured from Mars’ orbit, the scientists said they can see an alluvial fan of material washed down from the rim — with many apparent channels uphill of Link and Hottah.
The high number of channels between the rim and the newly-discovered rock bed suggests the stream was not a one-time occurrence, but that many streams flowed or repeated over a long period of time.
Curiosity is on a two-year mission to investigate whether it is possible to live on Mars and to learn whether conditions there might have been able to support life in the past.
The US$2.5 billion craft landed in Gale Crater on Aug. 6, opening a new chapter in the history of interplanetary exploration.