Abstract

Ancient sediments provide archives of climate and habitability on Mars. Gale Crater, the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), hosts a 5-km-high sedimentary mound (Mount Sharp/Aeolis Mons). Hypotheses for mound formation include evaporitic, lacustrine, fluviodeltaic, and aeolian processes, but the origin and original extent of Gale’s mound is unknown. Here we show new measurements of sedimentary strata within the mound that indicate ∼3° outward dips oriented radially away from the mound center, inconsistent with the first three hypotheses. Moreover, although mounds are widely considered to be erosional remnants of a once crater-filling unit, we find that the Gale mound’s current form is close to its maximal extent. Instead we propose that the mound’s structure, stratigraphy, and current shape can be explained by growth in place near the center of the crater mediated by wind-topography feedbacks. Our model shows how sediment can initially accrete near the crater center far from crater-wall katabatic winds, until the increasing relief of the resulting mound generates mound-flank slope winds strong enough to erode the mound. The slope wind enhanced erosion and transport (SWEET) hypothesis indicates mound formation dominantly by aeolian deposition with limited organic carbon preservation potential, and a relatively limited role for lacustrine and fluvial activity. Morphodynamic feedbacks between wind and topography are widely applicable to a range of sedimentary and ice mounds across the Martian surface, and possibly other planets.

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