Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are seasonal features on Mars that leave behind gullies similar to those left by running water on Earth. Their discovery a few years ago has prompted many experiments at Martian conditions to determine how these features form. At Martian surface pressures and temperatures, it’s not unusual for water to boil. And that boiling, as some experiments have shown, introduces opportunities for new transport mechanisms.
Researchers found that water in “warm” (T = 288 K) sand boils vigorously, ejecting sand particles and creating larger pellets of saturated sand. Water continues boiling out of the pellets once they form, creating a layer of vapor that helps levitate them as they flow downslope. The effect is similar to the Leidenfrost effect with drops of water sliding on a hot skillet; there’s little friction between the pellet and the surface, allowing it to travel farther.
The mechanism is quite efficient in experiments under Earth gravity and would be even more so under Mars’ lower gravity. It also requires less water than alternative explanations. The pellets that form are too small to be seen by the satellites we have imaging Mars, but the tracks they leave behind are similar to the RSL seen above. (Image credit: NASA; research credit: J. Raack et al., 1, 2; via R. Anderson; submitted by jpshoer)