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Streams Of Water Once Flowed On Mars; NASA Says Photos Prove It

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NASA says that water shaped the rocks on the left, in a photograph taken by the Mars rover Curiosity. For comparison, the agency released an image of rocks from the Earth (right).
NASA
NASA says that water shaped the rocks on the left, in a photograph taken by the Mars rover Curiosity. For comparison, the agency released an image of rocks from the Earth (right).

NASA's Curiosity rover has found definitive proof that water once ran across the surface of Mars, the agency announced today. NASA scientists say new photos from the rover show rocks that were smoothed and rounded by water. The rocks are in a large canyon and nearby channels that were cut by flowing water, making up an alluvial fan.

"You had water transporting these gravels to the downslope of the fan," NASA researchers say. The gravel then formed into a conglomerate rock, which was in turn likely covered before being exposed again.

The agency's scientists presented their findings of the former streambed on Mars at a news conference today.

"A River Ran Through It," Curiosity's operators tweeted Thursday. "I found evidence of an ancient streambed on Mars, similar to some on Earth."

"From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second," said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich, "with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep."

The rocks have not undergone scientific analysis. But the NASA team says that taken with geographic data from Mars orbiters, the photographs tell a story all their own.

The images show rocks with round, smooth surfaces; many of them have been broken down into sizes smaller than one inch in diameter.

"The shapes tell you they were transported and the sizes tell you they couldn't be transported by wind," co-investigator Rebecca Williams said. "They were transported by water flow."

"There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars," the agency said in a press release, "but this evidence — images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels — is the first of its kind."

NASA's team has named the rock outcrop that reveals the former streambed "Hottah," after Canada's Hottah Lake.

Scientists have not yet estimated the age of the rocks, which may have been buried beneath the surface. Their age could be several billion years.

The next step will be to find a good spot to drill into the rock, NASA says. And they'll be looking for possible carbon deposits to determine whether the water on Mars once supported life.

The photographs released Thursday are among more than 13,000 raw images Curiosity has captured. The rover took the photos during its mission to Mars' Gale Crater. The rocks in question lie between the crater's north rim and Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the crater.

NASA investigators presented the results of their analysis at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. You can read other posts about Curiosity in our archive.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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