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Did fire or ice shape the valleys of Mars?

Lava coils on patterned volcanic crust in Cerberus Palus, Mars.
[Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona]

A particular region of Mars, known as the Athabasca Valles, can be identified by polygon-shaped patterns on the ground. This part of the planet is a network of valleys located near the equator of Mars, and for years astronomers have puzzled over what kind of processes shaped it.

Some experts have claimed that the Athabasca Valles was originally molded by ice. But other researchers have suggested that hot, flowing lava shaped the region long ago. Now, thanks to high-resolution images beamed back to Earth from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, astronomers finally have their answer.

Andrew Ryan and Philip Christensen have analyzed the images of Mars' Athabasca Valles, and they say that ice-related processes could not have been responsible for creating the valleys. Instead, these researchers insist that the Athabasca Valles of Mars was born from volcanic activity long ago.

Ryan and Christensen say that large spiral coils on the ground there, some of them as wide as 30 meters across, look just like the ones found on the surface of Hawaiian lava flows here on Earth. So, they suggest that lava is the only thing that could have shaped those Martian valleys as well. The researchers identified a total of 269 of these spiral coils on Mars' Athabasca Valles.