We Finally Know What's Causing Enormous Mounds on Mars
Astronomers have puzzled over the miles-high mounds rising from of the centres of Martian craters. Scientists have pieced together an origin story and it reveals a critical moment in Mars' history. The mounds were sculpted by wind, following a shift in Mars’s climate that caused all the liquid water to dry up 3.7 billion years ago.
“On Mars there are no plate tectonics, and there’s no liquid water, so you don’t have anything to overprint that signature and over billions of years you get these mounds,” Day said in a statement. “Wind could never do this on Earth because water acts so much faster, and tectonics act so much faster.”
Mounds were first observed in Martian craters during NASA’s Viking program in the 1970s. Gale crater’s famous Mount Sharp, which the Curiosity rover has been painstakingly ascending for the better part of a year, is a three-mile-high mega-mound, but smaller versions are found across the Red Planet. While scientists have suspected that the mounds were sculpted by wind, Day is the first to show that the physics actually makes sense.
To do so, she built a miniature, 30-centimetre-wide “crater”, filled it with damp sand, stuck it in a wind tunnel, and watched what happened. Over time, her model was able to perfectly reproduce the mounds we see in Martian craters today, including the crescent-shaped moats that form around crater edges.
Mars used to be a much wetter planet, perhaps covered in oceans of liquid water. By studying the location of more than 30 actual mounds, Day concluded that the transition from a wet to dry climate which led to their formation occurred nearly four billion years ago during the “Noachian” period. As scientists continue to study the mounds, we can expect to learn more about how Mars became a barren wasteland long ago.
The three-mile-high mountain in Gale crater is basically a giant, compressed sand dune. As Day noted, something like that could never happen on Earth.