Irish team follow up Mars water discovery with similar find

30 Sep 2015

Martian ice cap image via Wikimedia Commons

Completely by coincidence, a joint Irish research team from University College Dublin (UCD) and The Open University (OU), has found evidence of water flows on Mars just one day after NASA announced a similar find.

The Mars water discovery announced by NASA has captivated many astronomers and those with an interest in space and science alike, but the news that an Irish-led team has made a similar discovery is somewhat remarkable.

Led jointly by UCD’s Dr Colman Gallagher, and OU’s Dr Matthew Balme, the team found evidence that water flows exist beneath the glaciers that are found at the polar regions of the Red Planet.

The key to their discovery came from the location of eskers near a degraded glacier showing as ridges of sediment similar to a dried-out river bed, which are only formed by sustained flows of liquid water underneath a glacier.

Until now, Martian eskers were believed to be dry-based with no meltwater, despite the existence of liquid water being needed for their formation.

With these new findings using images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Dr Gallagher and Dr Balme can confirm that this means that there are ‘significant quantities of liquid water’ underneath the glacier.


Examples of the eskers (boxed) located by the team. Image via NASA/JPL/ASU/MOLA/UCD/OU

Coincidence is a good things sometimes

According to Dr Gallagher, the evidence shows that the eskers are quite young in geological terms, being dated as approximately 150m-years-old, and were believed to have been caused by volcanic activity beneath the surface of Mars.

Of course, the obvious question remains as to whether this announcement is a coincidence given NASA’s major news yesterday, but Dr Gallagher has said that this in indeed the case.

“We got a tip-off last week from NASA that they were going to make a big announcement. We’re a small operation and we’re not going to compete with NASA,” Dr Gallagher said earlier today. “It was probably a good thing because the attention of the media was drawn to Mars over the last few days.”

However, it is important to differentiate the two discoveries as while they both share the same discovery of the existence of liquid water, it shows it’s possible through two different means.

“Eskers have been reported on Mars before,” said Dr Balme, “but they are normally stranded in the landscape with little to associate them with a glacial system. This is the first identification of an esker system on Mars that is still physically associated with its parent glacier.”

Explaining further this important difference, Dr Balme continued: “Eskers on Mars are important as they indicate melt of glacial ice – and finding another type of environment where liquid water can occur is important in the whole ‘life on Mars’ question, as it provides yet more evidence for habitability in the recent past.”

The team’s findings have now been published online at Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic