Water on Mars?

Planetary scientists are busy looking for evidence of water on Mars in support of plans to send robotic and, eventually, manned missions to the red planet. Water is a key ingredient in the search for signs of extraterrestrial life. Some scientists speculate that life may have once existed on Mars because a few massive channels there suggest floods of copious liquid surface water in the planet’s dim past. Also, the possibility of life is suggested by the presence of carbon dioxide as a major constituent of the thin atmosphere.

The scientific community has shifted its earlier view of Mars dramatically. Instead of stories about the cold desert planet, the popular press now prints headlines such as: “Flood Carves Instant Grand Canyon.” The situation is ripe for seeing only what is already believed. This bias shows in the language when channels are identified unequivocally as fluvial (carved by flowing water) and of late Noachian age (between 3.5 and 3.7 billion years old), the very name invoking images of a universal flood.

The thesis presented on this website tells a completely different history of Mars, based upon the electrical nature of the solar system and recent chaotic orbital behavior. It may seem outrageous to propose a completely different Mars about 10,000 years ago, instead of 3,500 million years ago in the conventional story. However, the dating techniques used by geologists rely on a belief in fictional and endlessly adjustable planetary evolution stories – a different story for each planet. These stories have proven to be totally non-predictive. Good science requires accounting for as much of the relevant evidence as possible. Instead of working forward from a set of beliefs about the past, we should first assemble all the data we can, including that from the stories told by ancient people about the behavior of objects they saw in the sky. A forensic method can glean useful information from these archaic stories, rituals, and art that can help distinguish between alternative explanations for present conditions.

The results of this forensic research by a very few adventurous scholars are unequivocal, unexpected and disturbing. If we could see it, our prehistoric sky would stupefy us with its unfamiliarity. Mars and Venus moved close to the Earth and met in apparent combat wielding thunderbolts. The spectacular patterns of interplanetary lightning were commemorated globally in petroglyphs, monumental works and cultural traditions. Our prehistoric ancestors remembered the Earth’s encounters with a furious Mars, “the god of war,” as the archetypal “doomsday.” That memory survives to this day in our cultures and religions, its true meaning almost universally unrecognized. We do not want to know that our beautiful Earth can be unsafe. We accept palaeontologists’ stories about global extinction events provided they happened in the dim and distant past. Modern doomsayers, as if tuned into the ancient fears, try to arouse us by stories of imminent impacts. But those stories are based on the geologists’ misunderstanding of impacts. Global devastation requires an encounter between planets, not puny asteroid impacts. The evidence for planetary electrical encounters is sufficiently detailed and extensive to fill several forthcoming books.

Being a small body, Mars suffered terribly in its planetary electrical exchanges. It lost most of its atmosphere in the process and gained a little in return. So present day measures of water and carbon dioxide on Mars do not represent billions of years of evolution. Indeed, the dominant constituents of its atmosphere, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, could have been predicted from the global accounts of the entanglement of Mars with the distended atmosphere of Venus. Also, it has been known since the first space probes descended into the infernal atmosphere of Venus that the measurements of isotopic ratios in its atmospheric gases contradict the standard evolutionary model of planet formation. The reason is that interplanetary discharges are powerful enough to cause nuclear transformations. In particular, they are copious generators of neutrons. So the anomalously high levels of the heavy isotopes of carbon (13C), nitrogen (15N) and hydrogen 2H, in the Martian atmosphere may be understood simply as due to neutron capture in the gases stretching between Mars and Venus during one of their celebrated battles.

So, what are we to make of the orthodox dating of the channels on Mars to almost 4 billion years ago? Relative dating of surface features relies upon comparisons of crater counts on the surfaces of Mars and other bodies. Radioactive clocks are then used to pin down the age of surface rocks. We have for that purpose rock samples from the Moon and a small number of meteorites identified as originating from Mars. But if the initial states of the rocks are unknown and the clocks can be upset by energetic electrical discharges, geologists are left with little else to date the surface features of Mars other than to count craters. And that is a method based on two crucial and erroneous assumptions:

The first assumption is that the solar system has run like clockwork for 5 billion years. That has allowed a fictitious early history to be written about planets being hit by leftovers from their afterbirth. The impacts had to be late enough that the planets could record them on a solid surface, so it is called the “late heavy bombardment.” Crater statistics led to a need for another episode, called the “post late heavy bombardment.” This “history” is a complex fiction because (1) the “accretion by impact” model of planet development has not been shown to work; (2) the source of objects responsible for the cratering record observed on solar system bodies remains an unsolved problem. (The “Oort cloud” of comets is postulated as one source of ammunition for pockmarking planets. However, the number of comets seen does not support the existence of such hypothetical “builder’s rubble” of the solar system. Nor does the theory make any sense.); and (3) random impacts do not explain either the detailed pattern of cratering nor the heavily cratered southern hemisphere and much smoother northern hemisphere of Mars.

The second assumption is that planetary craters are caused by the impacts of comets and asteroids. This assumption is clung to in the face of contradictory evidence. Researchers have admitted that it has not been possible to reproduce the features of most planetary craters with either impacts or explosions. So it is simply assumed that the craters are a result of impacts, and their features are used in an attempt to understand impact cratering! That is circular thinking, not science.

So what can be said of water on Mars in its earlier history? In the real story of Mars, the god of war, its pre-battle surface environment was likely to have been much more benign and Earth-like than it is today. On that basis I predict there was liquid water on the surface of Mars within the time of modern homo sapiens and that there is a good chance of finding fossils of complex life forms on Mars.

Keeping this in mind, let us look critically at this report from the Smithsonian researchers:

June 20, 2002

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Large Former Lake, Catastrophic Flood Identified on Mars

Geologists at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum have discovered a large former lake in the highlands of Mars that would cover an area the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, and which overflowed to carve one of that planet’s largest valleys. The findings will appear in the June 21 issue of the journal Science.

The flood channel, Ma’adim Vallis, is more than 550 miles long and up to 6,900 feet deep, making it larger than Earth’s Grand Canyon.

“Imagine more than five times the volume of water in the Great Lakes being released in a single flood, and you’ll have a sense of the scale of this event,” said Ross Irwin, a geologist in the museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) and the paper’s lead author.

Topographic map lake on Mars

Image credit: R. P. Irwin III and G. A. Franz, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

False-color topographic map of the recently discovered former lakes in the cratered highlands of Mars. Lighter colors denote higher elevations. The largest of the three lakes overtopped its basin rim and the resulting outflow toward the north (arrow) carved Ma’adim Vallis, which is larger than the Earth’s Grand Canyon. The basin and valleys are currently dry, but evidence of the former lake shorelines has been preserved. North is at the top.

Mars is now a cold desert planet but its many dry valleys could indicate that water once flowed on its surface. Recent results from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft have found evidence of water trapped in the near surface of the polar regions.

“The size of this lake-1,400 miles long-suggests Mars was warmer and wetter than previously thought,” said Robert Craddock, a CEPS geologist and co-author of the paper. Former lakes are considered the most likely places to preserve the record of any past Martian life. Calm water would allow sediments to be deposited slowly, preventing small organisms from being destroyed.

The source of water to carve the flood channel had long been a mystery to scientists, who had known very little about Mars’ topography prior to the Mars Global Surveyor mission, which has been orbiting Mars since 1997.

Detailed elevation data from the Mars Global Surveyor shows the large valley originated nearly full-size at a ridge, much like the spillway of a dam. Late in the lake’s history, rising water levels overflowed the lake basin rim, releasing the huge flood as the river cut into this former dividing ridge. What remained was “some of the best geological evidence for a lake found to date on Mars, including clear indications of the former shoreline,” Irwin says.

Two other smaller lake basins were identified in the region by paper co-author Alan Howard, a geologist at the University of Virginia. All three lakes shared the same water level prior to the flood, indicating the possibility of an ancient water table and suggesting the locations of other dry lake basins on Mars. Such information could be important in determining where to land robotic probes in coming years.

CEPS is the scientific research unit within the Collections and Research Department of the National Air and Space Museum. CEPS performs original research and outreach activities on topics covering planetary science, terrestrial geophysics, and the remote sensing of environmental change.

Comment: The geologists have not “discovered” a lake on Mars in the real sense of the word. They have discovered a cutoff level of valley networks, based on topographical maps derived from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) data. There appears to be an “abrupt transition from bedrock to less resistant sedimentary materials” at the 1100-metre contour. So this “shoreline” need only be reflecting the different response of the surface material to whatever erosive force shaped the area.

The major problem faced by geologists trying to explain huge valleys on dry and freezing Mars is to find a prodigious source of liquid water. With few signs of feeder streams or catchment areas, the various proposals have all required an underground source of water with unexplained episodes of heating. This paper is the first detailed proposal for a large surface reservoir of liquid water, and it requires a completely different atmospheric and temperature regime on Mars from that found today. For that reason, geologists push the event back into some imagined past epoch, called the “Noachian” era, ignoring the fact that the channels look new.

It is surely premature to declare that a former lake has been discovered on the basis of a “shoreline” and the identification of a single channel, Ma’adim Vallis, as an overflow channel that was carved by a catastrophic flood from that putative lake. An overflow of such magnitude over sedimentary material would usually be expected to produce a braided stream of many channels. This is particularly so given the cratered terrain, where crater ramparts should divert the flood. Instead of that, Ma’adim Vallis is noteworthy for the way it breaches crater walls as if they never existed. Even more damaging for the water erosion story is the fact that the channel bed itself does not show the forms expected of flowing water!

Maadim VallisShown here in greater detail is Ma’adim Vallis, the channel picked out in blue in the earlier picture. It is about 900 km long and varies in width from about 8 km to some 25 km near the mouth. Note that the flood is said to have originated at the bottom of the picture, where the lake is supposed to have breached an ancient crater rim. The expectation would be that the channel would be largest there but that is not the case. In fact it widens and deepens “downstream.” The morphology of Ma’adim Vallis is precisely that of a sinuous rille. See also ‘Mars and the Grand Canyon.’

Ma’adim Vallis was formed by surface lightning, streaking across Mars toward Gusev Crater. Gusev crater is the 150 km diameter crater at the top of the valley.







Laboratory discharge

Courtesy of Ed Bondarenko, Telstra Labs, Melbourne, Australia.

Laboratory surface “lightning” snakes across a sheet of glass and bakelite. It demonstrates the broad sinuous path taken by the discharge, its constant width over a large distance, and the lack of “tributaries.”

Inset of Ma’adim Vallis

Inset of Ma’adim Vallis.

This channel is supposed to be incredibly old ­ 3,500 million years! Yet it looks as if it was carved yesterday. If the craters are formed in the same flurry of electrical discharge activity across this hemisphere of Mars then the large crater straddling the channel may have been formed shortly before the rille was carved through it by the surface discharge.

Cathode arcs focus on local sharp high points. Having formed a crater, the tendency is then for the arc to jump to the rim of the new crater. By this means, continuous channels, composed of overlapping circular craters, may be cut into a surface. The edges of such a channel have a characteristic “cookie cutter” or scalloped appearance. This effect can be seen in the Ma’adim Vallis tributaries at lower center and top center in the picture. A small crater centered on the rim of a large crater is seen at a glance in images of any cratered planetary surface. It is an observation that impacts cannot explain. The two dissected craters at the entrance point of Ma’adim Vallis to Gusev crater show this hierarchical effect in relation to the Gusev crater.



Noctis LabyrinthusHere is an example of overlapping pits forming another huge Martian rille in Noctis Labyrinthus. Notice the crater centered on the rim and the scalloping and terracing of the rille walls. No flow of water could have cut this channel.

So, what is the story of the formation of Ma’adim Vallis? An arc cutting Gusev crater will sap electrons from the surrounding terrain by creating a strong radial electric field that begins to rip electrons from the solid surface. When breakdown begins, a lightning bolt tears across the surface, blasting soil and rock to either side of its sinuous path. A large proportion of the excavated material is impelled electrostatically to follow the main discharge toward space. Pieces not pulled into space would fall back in a more or less random scattering all over Mars. That explains why there is little evidence of deposition inside Gusev Crater from a channel that is larger than the Grand Canyon. It is also the reason why every Mars lander has returned a vista of rubble that extends to the horizon.

Mars has many giant channels like Ma’adim Vallis. One of the mysteries of these channels is the prevalence of transverse ridges, or so-called “sand dunes.” On a planet with practically no atmosphere that description seems far-fetched. Here we show an excellent example from the floor of the 700 km long Nirgal Vallis.

Nirgal VallisThe picture here shows a close up of the floor of Nirgal Vallis and is 2 to 3 km on a side.

The inner channel is the path followed by the lightning discharge and is somewhat more sinuous than the excavated channel. The “dunes” are indicated. Notice how the “dunes” turn the bend to follow the inner channel. Wind would not be expected to do that.

We now turn to a photograph of the so-called “exploding wire” experiment. It is deemed to be the closest thing to real lightning achievable in the laboratory. A thin wire is suspended and a powerful electric discharge sent through it. The wire is instantly vaporized and coronal filaments radiate into the air from the plasma discharge channel. It is the radial discharges of the corona that provide the clue to the “sand dunes” on Mars. It is well known that lightning passing through dry sand will form crumbly, glassy tubes of welded sand, known as fulgurites. It seems likely that the sand dunes in the Martian valleys are ridges of glass! They were formed by a corona discharge from the main lightning stroke.

Exploding wire experiment

Exploding wire experiment. Courtesy of Ed Bondarenko, Telstra Labs, Melbourne, Australia.

The width of the Martian channel seems to be influenced by the width of the corona and depth of the discharge, which in turn is dependent on the conductivity and nature of the near-surface rock.

Gully in Gorgonum ChaosA “gully” in Gorgonum Chaos. The image is about 3 km square. Notice that a little liquid seems to have seeped from a stratum near the top of the south-facing channel wall.

A narrow lightning stroke at depth produces a V-shaped explosion channel. A broad corona in poorly conducting soil seems to produce a flatter floored channel. There are a few examples where a little water seems to have trickled down channel walls from a near-surface layer. That may be misleading because it could be an artifact of the electrical discharge, which seems to introduce an asymmetry in the pattern of erosion in opposite walls. See Gorgonum Chasma and also the asymmetric erosion of the north and south walls of Valles Marineris.

So if the huge channels on Mars were not carved by catastrophic floods in the remote past, what are the chances of finding subsurface water on Mars now?

Although the giant channels on Mars were not carved by water, there is better evidence, apart from the small seepage channels, that Mars had more water in the past. It comes from the peculiar appearance of some Martian craters, where mud seems to have flowed away from the crater’s rim. It is not the sort of thing that can be explained by an explosive impact. However, it is expected from an electric arc impinging on a moist anode surface. In the experiment shown here, an arc from a suspended cathode has struck a moist clay anode, representing the Martian surface. Unlike the jumping cathode arc, the anode arc “sticks” to the spot and rotates to form a circular scar, while water comes to the clay surface and flows gently away from the rim of the scar.

Anode arc on clay pad

An arc striking a moist clay anode. The clay has become quite wet surrounding the arc scar. Experiment courtesy of Rod Browitt.

Anode crater on MarsHere is an example from Mars. The larger, unnamed crater is 10 km across. Notice the rotary terracing effects of the spinning arc in the crater floor and the tendency in large craters to leave a central peak relatively untouched. An impact cannot explain these features, nor the lack of damage caused by one crater to the other. Ballistic emplacement of the ejecta has been ruled out by geologists. These “rampart” craters are widely distributed on Mars, which indicates a former “moist” environment over the entire planet.

Recently, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft has been measuring neutrons from the atomic debris caused by cosmic rays smashing atoms as they penetrate the Martian crust. From the neutron energies it is possible to determine the presence and rough depth of hydrogen atoms beneath the surface. The assumption is made that any hydrogen signal is due to subsurface mineral-bound water. In the diagram below, the blue areas returned the stronger hydrogen signals. As expected from the (as yet untold) recent history of Mars, the south Polar Regions have the highest abundance. There is a caution to be added however. As a report in Science* noted:

“The hydrogen signature extends willy-nilly beyond the lander targets across any number of geologic terrains.

Epithermal neutrons

The regions are ‘very hard to reconcile with what we know about geology or topography,’ says planetary scientist James Bell of Cornell University. They don’t fit the distribution of particular rock types, rock abundance, dust, or even atmospheric water vapor, notes planetary scientist Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder.”

Plasma arcs are the most efficient means known for implanting ions into a solid surface. That could account for the lack of correlation with the geology. The problem facing NASA may well be that the hydrogen signature in the lower latitudes is mainly from implanted hydrogen ions and not from water.

Summing up: With the available evidence and some insights into the recent history of the solar system it is possible to confidently answer some of the questions about Mars:

• YES, there was some water, and probably life too, on Mars in the recent past. However, the water was mostly stripped off along with the atmosphere. There is abundant evidence of catastrophic winds, electrical erosion and hemispheric differences arising from that process.

• The carbon dioxide “ice caps” and remnant atmosphere are from an exogenous source – Venus.

• And NO, the giant channels on Mars cannot be used as evidence of a “Noachian” flood time on early Mars. When the history of Mars is finally told, the irony in the use of that name will become clear.

In an editorial, “Where’s the sparkle?” in New Scientist 8 June 2002, NASA is accused of having run out of things to say. The story of water on Mars has been heard too many times, even though there was some new information. It “only served to strengthen the cynical view of NASA as an agency obsessed with spin and devoid of new ideas and goals.” But to have really new ideas and goals requires new people and NASA is firmly in the grip of “old” experts. As Max Plank wrote ruefully, “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning.”**

Meanwhile, NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn is due to arrive there in 2004. Be prepared for some BIG surprises, particularly concerning Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. You see, the primordial and greatest god of old was Saturn, not the Sun. Titan is a very close relative of the Earth, Mars and Venus. Sorry NASA, life’s too short to wait for you!

*Science 2002 June 14; 296: 1962

** Max Planck, (1858-1947) from Scientific Autobiography, 1949.

© Wal Thornhill 2002

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