NIU geography professor Wei Luo lands NASA grant to help quantify Mars’ watery past

Wei Luo

Wei Luo

Now that scientists have convincing evidence that water helped shape the surface of Mars, Northern Illinois University geography professor Wei Luo is setting out to answer another important question: Just how much water was there?

“With more and more observations from satellites orbiting Mars and rovers on its surface, researchers have very convincing evidence pointing to past water activities on the red planet,” Luo said. “The evidence includes valley networks, outflow channels, delta deposits and even shoreline features.

An enhanced shaded relief image of Ma'adim Vallis, an outflow channel on Mars stretching more than 400 miles flowing north into the Gusev crater, near the equator. The channel is thought to have been carved by flowing water early in the history of the red planet. Gray tone indicates channel depth. (Image created with NASA data)

An enhanced shaded relief image of Ma’adim Vallis, an outflow channel on Mars stretching more than 400 miles flowing north into the Gusev crater, near the equator. The channel is thought to have been carved by flowing water early in the history of the red planet. Gray tone indicates channel depth. (Image created with NASA data)

“But questions over how much water existed on the planet have not been well addressed, and more accurate estimates will help our understanding of both the source of water and its evolution and cycling on Mars,” Luo added.

NASA’s Mars Data Analysis Program is providing Luo, an NIU Presidential Research Professor, with a multi-year grant totaling $291,000 to conduct his investigation. Collaborators on the project include Professor Alan Howard of the University of Virginia and Professor Joon Heo of Yonsei University in South Korea.

Previous estimates of the volume of water needed to carve the extensive valley networks on Mars have been based on simple measurements of the typography at just a few sites with limited data.

In this new study, Professor Luo and his colleagues will develop computer algorithms, based on those used in terrestrial laser-generated data analyses with very high resolution, and apply the algorithms to the latest digital elevation model data on Mars.

Ultimately, the scientists hope to derive a more accurate estimate of the volume of water needed on a global scale to create the valley networks. Luo and his team built a database of the valley networks for a previous NASA project.

“The results of this new project will provide independent data to compare with the global water inventory derived from other sources,” said Luo, who will be recruiting an NIU graduate student to work on the project. “We also hope to further test the northern ocean hypothesis.”

Scientists have previously hypothesized that a single ocean existed in the northern hemisphere of ancient Mars, but the issue has been hotly debated.

Luo’s project could potentially provide new insights into the atmosphere circulation and precipitation patterns across Mars at the time when its valleys were formed.

“Getting a handle on how much water existed on Mars will begin to answer questions over whether the planet at one time had a full hydrologic cycle, like on Earth,” Luo said.

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