Mars: Noachian River System May Have Flowed >100,000 Years

Noachian (4.1 – 3.7 billion years ago)

The Noachian Period is named after Noachis Terra, an ancient highland region located between the huge Argyre and Hellas impact basins of the southern hemisphere.

This was still a period of heavy bombardment, with numerous asteroid and comet impacts. These created the Hellas, Isidis and Argyre basins, the largest impact structures still visible on the planet today, as well as many of the craters that pockmark the southern highlands.

At the same time, large-scale volcanic activity was taking place in the Tharsis region and parts of the highlands. The growth of the Tharsis bulge – home to Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons and Ascraeus Mons, some of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System – coincided with widespread fracturing of the surface and the creation of the giant rift valley system known as Valles Marineris.

The volcanic eruptions poured ash and gases into the atmosphere. As the thicker blanket of air trapped more solar heat, the planet warmed. Clouds probably developed and precipitation rained to the ground. Many of the valley networks on Mars date from this period, and lakes seem to have formed in many basins and craters. There may even have been a shallow ocean covering at least part of the northern lowlands.

Surface rovers have found evidence to indicate that many rocks were chemically altered by periodic or prolonged exposure to non-acidic ground water. This led to the formation of clay minerals, known as phyllosilicates.

Meanwhile, as the interior of the planet cooled and its magnetic dynamo shut down, Mars no longer retained a global magnetic field.

Habitable environments gradually became smaller and more localised, but Noachian surface conditions continued to be favourable for the emergence of life.


Guest “what a cool field trip this would be!” by David Middleton

An ancient river on Mars may have flowed for 100,000 years

SPACE 5 May 2020
By Donna Lu

We know from images of Mars’s surface that the planet once had plenty of flowing water, but now we’ve found the first evidence of a river that was there for more than 100,000 years.

Francesco Salese at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues discovered a high rocky cliff in the north-western rim of Mars’s Hellas basin that seems to have been formed gradually by the flow of an ancient river.

As rivers moves, they deposit sediment that builds up in layers. The rocky outcrop is 200 metres high – about twice the height of the White Cliffs of Dover – and 1.5 kilometres wide. The sedimentary rocks of the cliff are an estimated 3.7 billion years old. For something of this size to form, it would have required a river that was active for at least 100,000 Earth years.


“To form these 200-metre-thick deposits we needed conditions that would have required an environment capable of maintaining significant volumes of liquid water,” says Salese. That means the water would have flowed year round, which suggests that Mars once had a water cycle driven by precipitation, similar to that of Earth.


Read more:

The full text of the paper, Salese et al., 2020, is available and literally “rocks!” (Whenever anyone says “literally,” they almost always mean figuratively.)

This image is from the New Scientist article:

“This Martian cliff may have been cut by hundreds of thousands of years of water flowing over it
Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University”
Read more:

This appears to be an erosional exposure of a sedimentary rock sequence, most likely of fluvial origin, covered by subsequent lava flows.

In this study, we use high-resolution imaging science experiment (HiRISE) image (25 cm/pixel) and topographic (1 m/pixel) data to describe the sedimentary-stratigraphic architecture of a far-larger, 1500-m-wide, 190-m-thick sedimentary succession. The recently identified Izola outcrop is located in the northwestern rim of the Hellas basin (Fig. 1a), a ~2000 km diameter impact structure containing a variety of 3.7 Ga Noachian Fe/Mg phyllosilicate-rich sedimentary intercrater plains, overlain by Hesperian-aged (~3.3 Ga) lava flows19.

These intercrater plains offer erosional windows which expose stratigraphic sections with well-preserved channel forms, and which must be older than the ~3.7 Ga overlying plains19. The channel forms and associated sedimentary packages are interpreted as the product of an actively depositing fluvial system, with the final sedimentary architecture suggesting that these Noachian-aged rivers were not typified by high-energy episodic floods, but rather perennial or semi-perennial fluvial flow. The scale and completeness of the sedimentary succession offers a so far unique opportunity to assess the larger scale morphology of an evolving Noachian-aged fluvial system.

Salese et al., 2020

The detail of the sedimentary architecture is stunning.

a Close up of white box indicated in Fig. 2bb Architectural interpretation of a displaying a number of channels (blue lines). Some examples preserve former channel margins, strong evidence for original channel lateral migration. Channelised packages have associated inclined accretion surfaces (magenta lines), with all packages topped and floored by more extensive fifth-order surfaces (red lines). Fifth-order surfaces possibly archive avulsion events. A previous channel margin (1 + 3) laterally coalesces with the final channel margin (2 + 4) indicating that the original active channel migrated laterally. A nested channel-cut (5) is present within a larger channelised package. c Close up of white box indicated in Fig. 2bd Examples of inclined accretion surfaces with distinct foreset and bottomset elements (topsets truncated by overlying strata). Downlapping of internal, third-order surfaces suggest multiple accretion phases. Note that line drawings are not attempted in areas where exposure is poor. A third-order surface (7) downlaps the bottomset of an underlying fourth-order surface (6) indicating bar migration. A subsequent fourth-order surface (8) truncates the previous fourth-order surface (6) indicating multiple phases of bar-building activity.” Salese et al., 2020

Hopefully the Mars Perseverance Rover will launch on schedule, this summer. It will explore Jezero crater, where evidence of both clay mineralogy (phyllosilicates) and lacustrine carbonates have been detected. Perseverance will cache rock and regolith samples for future recovery.

Featured Image

Colorful Sediments near Hellas Basin


Salese, F., McMahon, W.J., Balme, M.R. et al. Sustained fluvial deposition recorded in Mars’ Noachian stratigraphic record. Nat Commun 11, 2067 (2020).

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May 7, 2020 2:46 am

So a “life-friendly” climate, which has existed on Earth for billions of years, may have existed on Mars for at least 0.0001 billion years. That is not much time for smart sludge to figure out the answers to life, universe and all that stuff.

How much of that time was the water frozen?

Reply to  David Middleton
May 8, 2020 7:06 pm

Just scanned the Salese et al (2020) article for how they tried to age-scale their stratigraphic sequence to earth sequences of similar magnitude. Mostly they compared Earth-based stratigraphic analyses for sequences that pre-dated the appearance of land-based vegetation (sensible). But they made no mention of the biggest difference that occurs to me – the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars.

Because Mars’ gravity is about 40 percent of Earth’s, it would seem a gram of water would be able to move (tranport) about 2.5x as much quartz sand (for example; any other material would also compare) as it does on Earth on a similar slope. Thus the sedimentation rates would be quite different on the two planets. And then compaction rates would likely be much lower on Mars, so unlike on Earth, preserved stratigraphic thichness on Mars would likely be much closer to depositional thickness

Thorny problem, more complex than a back-of-envelope thingy, eh?

Ron Long
May 7, 2020 3:25 am

Great posting, David. It would be interesting to know if the Mars molten core magnetic dynamo underwent magnetic reversals like here on Earth. If there are basalts for sure there is remnant magnetism locked into the few constituent minerals that become permantly magnetized as they cool below the Curie Point. I wonder if the new Rover has this capability? Something really simple and light would work. Stay sane and safe (today is my day, based on identity document number, to walk with dogs-they’re as excited as I am).

Moderately Cross of East Anglia
Reply to  Ron Long
May 7, 2020 4:48 am

Do your dogs have identity document numbers; where do you live?

Reply to  David Middleton
May 7, 2020 5:35 am

After the lockdown ends next year, will those identity docs be used by the government for other purposes?

You know, for your own good of course.

Ron Long
Reply to  Klem
May 7, 2020 10:45 am

Klem, the southern arc of Latin America is ultra-socialist, to wit: a few years ago Brazil President Dilma Rossef was an admitted Marxist terrorist group leader, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina was the lawyer for Los Monteros, a Marxist Terrorist group (where she met and married one of the leaders, Nestor Kirchner, future Argentina President) and Chile had Bachelet as President, she described herself as an “Ultra Socialist” (she is now head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission). So everywhere you go somebody wants to see your Identity Document for whatever (or for no) reason. Climate Change? Very big topic here because, you know, its those Capitalist Americans in their SUV’s that are going to kill us all. Stay sane and safe (2 glasses of Malbec for lunch, everything OK here).

Reply to  Klem
May 7, 2020 2:39 pm

Ron , S. Am. politics seems to either ultra left or ultra right and always ultra corrupt.

I doubt that Gen. Pinochet or the Argentinian junta were any less keen on ID and random controls and far more keen on “disappearances” as a means of population control.

It looks like the great democratic values of the northern hemisphere are not as well anchored as we all happily assumed.

John Tillman
Reply to  Moderately Cross of East Anglia
May 7, 2020 5:32 am

Don Ron lives amid the Malbec vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina, across the Andes from my AO. Mt. Aconcagua, highest on Earth outside of a small region of Asia, where plates collide, marks the border with Chile between us. It’s closed at the moment.

Ron Long
Reply to  John Tillman
May 7, 2020 8:15 am

One of these days, John, maybe I could trade you a case of good Malbec for a case of Cabernet Sauvignon? We could talk about climate change and let the Watts readers know how it turns out?

John Tillman
Reply to  Ron Long
May 7, 2020 2:25 pm

Sorry to miss you and your trophy bride when last in Renaca.

Would be happy to trade Cab Sauv for Malbec. I prefer Carmenere anyway. IMO that’s Chile’s best vino tinto, and its white Sauv Blanc.

Chile is also almost unique in that its vines roots are original. It was so isolated during the 19th century Phylloxera plague that its vines survived. Kind of surprising, given frequent ship stops here to take on water.

The Chilean navy steamed to Colombia to help it against Teddy Roosevelt-backed Panamanian rebels in 1903, knowing that a canal would mean economic ruin for Valparaiso.

John Tillman
Reply to  Ron Long
May 7, 2020 2:50 pm

I’ve always wanted to visit the dinosauriferous bits of the Argentine. It looks as if the superorder evolved in that part of Triassic Gondwanaland, or possibly then contiguous southern Africa.

Ron Long
Reply to  Moderately Cross of East Anglia
May 7, 2020 5:46 am

Moderately Cross, I live in Mendoza, Argentina, and only I have a document (DNI) number, but my dogs reject such nonsense.

Moderately Cross of East Anglia
Reply to  Ron Long
May 7, 2020 9:02 am

Wow, lucky you with all those lovely wines on your doorstep, I frequently buy Malbec and Carmenere from your part of the world. I’ll raise a glass to you and your dogs…

Ron Long
Reply to  David Middleton
May 7, 2020 5:51 am

Thanks, David, I read the NASA article and it sure sounds like magnetic reversals from early in the Mars history.

May 7, 2020 4:00 am

Not enough time for life to evolve. IMHO.

Reply to  David Middleton
May 7, 2020 7:34 am

Life didn’t evolve on Earth until about 2 B years after consolidation. And it was without shells for 2 B years.
Hadian 4.56 – 4.00
Archean 4.00 – 2.50
Proterozoic 2.5 – .541

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  David Middleton
May 7, 2020 7:56 pm

Headline: “Scientists discover dinosaur that died 65 million years ago last Friday.”

John Tillman
Reply to  Michael Kelly
May 7, 2020 2:28 pm

Life probably arose here in the Late Hadean, possibly as early as 4.2 Ga, but almost certainly by 4.0 Ga (end Hadean).

Photosynthetic cyanobacteria evovled by around 3.5 Ga, in the Archean Eon.

Foley Hund
Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
May 8, 2020 6:48 am

Right, and there never will be enough time for life to evolve. lol

May 7, 2020 5:17 am

This is obviously rock it science.

May 7, 2020 5:48 am

Looking at the landing procedure from the NASA page, it looks like it will be a miracle if the rover gets on the ground safely. I’m sure they have tested and retested, but there is a lot that could go wrong on the way down. With the whole package in space for quite a few months, you have heat, cold and radiation working on the mechanical and electronics.

You have to hit the Martian atmosphere at the right angle and speed, the parachute has to open at the right time, the heat shield has to eject at the right time, the shell has to decouple at the right time, all eight rockets have to fire at the right time, the four rockets have to shut down and the cables to lower the actual rover have to work correctly, the rover has to touch down at a slow speed and finally the pyro charges have to go off to cut the cables and the carrier needs to land away from the rover.

Then you have to power up and establish rover – Earth communication and get going. Whew.

Eustace Cranch
Reply to  rbabcock
May 7, 2020 6:16 am

The Curiosity rover accomplished that “miracle” with flying colors in 2012.

Those who never try never win.

Don K
Reply to  Eustace Cranch
May 7, 2020 8:32 am

On the other hand, Europe’s Schiaparelli lander in 2017 apparently tried to land about a mile above the Martian surface and shut off its thrusters prematurely with much the results one might expect. Landing on Mars really is pretty tricky. The thin atmosphere is, we’re told, worse than no atmosphere at all None the less, five or six successful landings have been made (out of 16 attempts) — several in the 1970s. “Five or Six” because Russia’s Mars-3 lander in 1971 apparently landed successfully only to fail just 14 seconds later.

Reply to  rbabcock
May 7, 2020 8:14 am

All landers have a complex series of activities that all have to work perfectly for the system to land.
Most landers manage to land successfully.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  rbabcock
May 7, 2020 8:00 pm

I asked the Chief Engineer of the MSL program how they developed the landing technique, since there was no way to test it as a system. His reply was, in essence: very careful, thorough analysis.

You gotta hand it to them…

Craig from Oz
Reply to  rbabcock
May 7, 2020 9:24 pm

Science is easy.

Engineering – taking the ‘science’ and converting it into practical and working applications – is hard.

That is why you should always go out of our way to thank any engineering professional you happen to meet, preferably by buying them alcohol.

On a completely unrelated topic, I like dark ale. 🙂

Reply to  rbabcock
May 8, 2020 4:17 am

Mars is a very difficult place to land. Too much atmosphere for a pure ballistic rocket landing but too little for a parachute or winged landing. Hence the complex mixture.

May 7, 2020 5:49 am

Maybe Mars had a flood too.

Reply to  Goggles
May 7, 2020 8:26 am

The Noachian Period is named after Noachis Terra, an ancient highland region located between the huge Argyre and Hellas impact basins of the southern hemisphere.

“Noachis Terra” means “Land of Noah”, referring to the biblical “flood covenant” patriarch Noah (in Hebrew נח “no-akh”)

Joel O'Bryan
May 7, 2020 10:58 am

And we need to spend 1,000 times the cost of ALL these robotic rovers just to send one manned mission to Mars?
I fully support robotic exploration of Mars and even the sample return missions being designed and planned. But the manned Mars missions though will be an extreme waste of limited science dollars, for little or no new science or discoveries.

Don K
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
May 7, 2020 2:32 pm

Joel, I doubt we can actually do a manned Mars mission for only half a trillion dollars. But $500B seems to be the current conventional wisdom to send a few folk, have them make some speeches, pick up a few rocks and (hopefully) return. Possibly somewhat the worse for wear. Maybe it can be done for that if everything goes well. Which it sometimes does.

Contrast that with $2.5B for the entire multi-year Curiosity rover mission.

Somewhat the same logic applies to lunar exploration although the cost differential between manned and robotic isn’t quite so staggering for the moon. If you ask me, we’ve wasted 50 years by not sending regular rovers to the moon. But apparently it is somehow important to the greater glory of mankind to do space exploration as inefficiently and ineffectively as possible.

Reply to  Don K
May 7, 2020 3:12 pm

DonK: “But apparently it is somehow important to the greater glory of mankind to do space exploration as inefficiently and ineffectively as possible.”

Perhaps important for the greater good of the government. If they just stuck to roads & exploration instead of dropping bombs and telling tax payers how they can live the big price tags could perhaps be tolerated. If the explore budget did not include subsidies for “renewables.”

Reply to  Don K
May 7, 2020 4:53 pm

Well, I think it’s an excellent way to waste money.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
May 7, 2020 10:54 pm

“But the manned Mars missions though will be an extreme waste of limited science dollars, for little or no new science or discoveries.”
Why do think you have so many robotic missions to Mars.
Mostly because NASA has wanted a manned mission to Mars.
Now, NASA going to send robotic mission to Europa- and not many think we going to send manned mission to Jupiter’s moon’s anytime soon. But my point is the large numbers of robotic mission to Mars is related to plan to do Manned mission and it’s thought Mars is most habitable planet other than Earth.

–Don K May 7, 2020 at 2:32 pm
Joel, I doubt we can actually do a manned Mars mission for only half a trillion dollars. But $500B seems to be the current conventional wisdom to send a few folk, have them make some speeches, pick up a few rocks and (hopefully) return. —

One thing about Manned programs, is that NASA builds rockets for Manned programs, and NASA uses commercial launch companies for the rockets to do robotic mission.
Or sole purpose/justification for SLS [Space Launch System] is for manned programs, though NASA will use SLS to launch bigger robotic missions.
But if going to count the costs of Manned Mars Mission, most people will include the development cost of the Manned Rocket- or SLS which already spent something 20 billion dollars {without having single launch yet} would tack cost of Manned Mars or Moon programs.
Or when talk about cost of Apollo manned Program, you would include the development costs of the Saturn V rocket. And Apollo program would include many rocket developments, many robotic missions, and all cost of the manned missions.
So will a mars manned program costs 500 billion?
As said, already spent 20 billion on SLS and each SLS rocket launch will cost about 2 billion. Plus they want develop the “Exploration Upper Stage” which you could tack another 5 billion.
Now all these costs might charged to the Moon manned Program. So maybe they wouldn’t counted for Mars manned program- just the individual launch costs of about 2 billion.
But important aspect is with robotic mission is it just includes the individual rocket launch cost- but never the development costs of a rocket. Or robotic mission never build a rocket for their mission- rather they use rockets developed for other purposes. Or as I said SLS will launch robotic missions- if ever flies.
Of course the private sector has some plans to make big rockets, specifically, SpaceX, and it’s Starship.
Though also Amazon’s Bezos is also planning building a Saturn V size rocket, the New Glenn. But, Musk is already building parts of his Starship. Anyways, back to NASA programs.
So NASA current year budget is about 22.6 billion.
And in terms inflation adjust, NASA typical year budget is about 20 billion, and you could say it’s bumped up, because NASA want land a crew with at least one female on the Moon by 2024.
And it might increase to being 24 billion a year by the time 2024.
So, if just landed once on Moon {they may land more that that} how much will people say the Moon manned program will cost.
I would guess 50 to 100 billion, because it will include a lot costs that robotic mission doesn’t count.
And how much has ISS program cost? Well, at least 150 billion, and when finally done {who knows when} probably +200 billion.
About only reason Lunar manned program might fairly be cheap, is NASA could in hurry to end it, and start it’s Mars manned program.
But they probably don’t want to run both ISS and Mars program at same time, so Mars manned program might kill ISS and lunar program.
But question actually is, how much will entire NASA budget be, when it does Mars Manned Program.
Well it’s going to be expensive, so I would with inflation adjusted, I say NASA budget will be about 25 billion per year. Or it would “need” to be 5 billion dollars added per year, compared to past history of it’s budget. And in terms whether it will cost 500 billion, it would depend on how many decades it ran for {ISS has run for 2 decades, could be close to 3 decades before it’s done}.
Now the way I would do a Manned Mars, is to use a lot robotic missions. Or terms of budget 1/2 funds spent on Manned aspect and 1/2 on robotic. I would land base before crew show up. So it would be robotic- but it is done for manned mission. And once crew are on Mars, I would crew operate robotic mission {since they there, there is no speed of light delay in transmission] and it’s safer, using robotic operation. but someone goes wrong with it, then send crew to fix it [or send a robot to fix the robot}.
I would want drill a mile under the surface- you can do with the robots we currently sending. But a mostly robotic operation could drill mile under the surface.
So if you include all of this and doing it for 3 decades, then it might close to 500 billion or
500 / 30 = 16.66 billion. No, probably more like 300 billion or 10 billion per year. And NASA would spent
about 450 billion on stuff other than Mars related during that same 30 year time period.
And NASA will have stop doing it’s ISS program- which might have never done, if it didn’t go to Mars, instead. Though I don’t rule out the crazy, that NASA might want to continue ISS when it sends crew to Mars, and if they did, it would just result in less spent on Mars and less Mars exploration being done.

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