Researchers have discovered a patch of land in an ancient valley near Mars' equator that appears to have been flooded by water in the not-too-distant past.
The scientists believe that the findings, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, offer a prime target to begin searching for past life forms on the Red Planet.
"On Earth, desert dunefields are periodically flooded by water in areas of fluctuating groundwater, and where lakes, rivers and coasts are found in proximity. These periodic floods leave tell-tale patterns behind them," said one of the researchers Mary Bourke from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.
"You can imagine our excitement when we scanned satellite images of an area on Mars and saw this same patterned calling card, suggesting that water had been present in the relatively recent past," Bourke said.
In a remote sensing study of the Namib Desert in Africa, the researchers had previously noted these patterns — 'arcuate striations' — on the surface between migrating sand dunes.
Fieldwork subsequently showed that these arcuate striations resulted from dune sediments that had been geochemically cemented by salts left behind by evaporating groundwater.
"Following our work in Namibia, we hypothesise that on Mars, similar arcuate striations exposed on the surface between dunes are also indications of fluctuating levels of salty groundwater, during a time when dunes were actively migrating down the valley," Bourke added.
"These findings are hugely significant. Firstly, the Martian sand dunes show evidence that water may have been active near Mars' equator — potentially in the not-too-distant past. And secondly, this location is now a potential geological target for detecting past life forms on the Red Planet, which is important to those involved in selecting sites for future missions," she said.