Press Release

Leicester Scientist Helps Discover Ancient Streambed on Mars

By SpaceRef Editor
June 1, 2013
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University of Leicester scientist Dr John Bridges contributed to a new report showing how rocks examined by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity reveal details of an ancient Martian stream
A University of Leicester planetary scientist has helped reveal rock samples found by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover from part of an ancient Martian streambed.

The rocks are the first ever found on Mars that contain streambed gravels. The sizes and shapes of the gravels embedded in these conglomerate rocks — from the size of sand particles to the size of golf balls — enabled researchers to calculate the depth and speed of the water that once flowed at this location.

Dr John Bridges, of the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre within the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is one of two UK Participating Scientists on the mission, and leads a team from the University of Leicester, the Open University and CNRS France.\
Dr Bridges gathered data from images to characterise the size and shape of the rock fragments in the conglomerate – which provided data allowing the wider team to accurately compare the samples with examples on Earth.

Dr Bridges said: “Seeing the images of the conglomerate outcrops come down from Curiosity has been one of the highlights of the mission so far. The signs of rounded clasts and all that implies about flowing water were one of the first things we noticed in the days after landing. I’m looking forward to a lot more discoveries about the history of water at Gale Crater.”

He worked with collaborator Dr Susanne Schwenzer, of the Open University.

“We completed more rigorous quantification of the outcrops to characterize the size distribution and roundness of the pebbles and sand that make up these conglomerates,” said Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz., lead author of a report about them in the journal Science this week.”We ended up with a calculation in the same range as our initial estimate last fall. At a minimum, the stream was flowing at a speed equivalent to a walking pace — a meter, or three feet, per second — and it was ankle-deep to hip-deep.”

Three pavement-like rocks examined with the telephoto capability of Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the rover’s first 40 days on Mars are the basis for the new report. One, “Goulburn,” is immediately adjacent to the rover’s “Bradbury Landing” touchdown site. The other two, “Link” and “Hottah,” are about 165 and 330 feet (50 and 100 meters) to the southeast. Researchers also used the rover’s laser-shooting Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the Link rock.

“These conglomerates look amazingly like streambed deposits on Earth,” Williams said. “Most people are familiar with rounded river pebbles. Maybe you’ve picked up a smoothed round rock to skip across the water. Seeing something so familiar on another world is exciting and also gratifying.”

The larger pebbles are not distributed evenly in the conglomerate rocks. In Hottah, researchers detected alternating pebble-rich layers and sand layers. This is common in streambed deposits on Earth and provides additional evidence for stream flow on Mars. In addition, many of the pebbles are touching each other, a sign that they rolled along the bed of a stream.

“Our analysis of the amount of rounding of the pebbles provided further information,” said Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College, London, a co-author of the new report. “The rounding indicates sustained flow. It occurs as pebbles hit each other multiple times. This wasn’t a one-off flow. It was sustained, certainly more than weeks or months, though we can’t say exactly how long.”

The stream carried the gravels at least a few miles, or kilometers, the researchers estimated.
The atmosphere of modern Mars is too thin to make a sustained stream flow of water possible, though the planet holds large quantities of water ice. Several types of evidence have indicated that ancient Mars had diverse environments with liquid water. However, none but these rocks found by Curiosity could provide the type of stream flow information published this week. Curiosity’s images of conglomerate rocks indicate that atmospheric conditions at Gale Crater once enabled the flow of liquid water on the Martian surface.

During a two-year prime mission, researchers are using Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to assess the environmental history in Gale Crater on Mars, where the rover has found evidence of ancient environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

More information about Curiosity is online at: and

You can follow the mission on Facebook at: and on Twitter at

Science Contact
Dr John Bridges
Tel: (0)116 252 2007

University of Leicester Press Office Contacts:
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Peter Thorley
Tel: 0116 252 2415

SpaceRef staff editor.