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updated 2/25/2009 9:10:30 PM ET 2009-02-26T02:10:30

Distinctive fractures in ancient lava flows on Mars suggest that water occasionally flooded portions of the planet's surface. The research piles onto previous findings that suggest the same.

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The fractures, called columnar joints, are the first that have been observed on a planet other than Earth.

"Columnar joints form as cooling lava contracts," said Moses Milazzo, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The characteristics of the column-like fractures can help scientists understand the role of water in geologic processes on Mars. Milazzo worked with the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera team to make the finding, which is detailed in the journal Geology.

The Martian columns, about 3 feet in diameter and about 100 feet high, were identified in the tilted inner walls of an impact crater.

"The HiRISE instrument just barely has the resolution to pick out the columns if they're facing the camera with the perfect orientation," said Milazzo. When the impact crater formed, the rocks were tilted backward, toward the sky, which is what allowed the identification.

The impact crater where the columns were discovered is in a region that has a history of extensive volcanic activity. Milazzo suspects that the columnar joints formed as lava flows were episodically flooded by liquid water, which quickly cooled the lava. Flooding cycles may have lasted from a few months to a few years, they estimate.

On Earth, columnar joints are common in the rocks of the Colorado Plateau, which provide a study site for comparisons to Mars.

Other geological evidence on Mars points to periods when floods washed across the surface, including similarities of certain canyons to Idaho's Box Canyon and modeling studies that suggest some areas were inundated for at least 10,000 years.

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