China finds recent water flows on Mars, with big implications for alien life

mars was once wet enough to cover its entire surface with an ocean of water hundreds to thousands of feet deep, containing about half as much water as the Atlantic Ocean. However, the most recent epoch of Martian history, known as Amazonia, the last 3 billion years of the Red Planet, is often considered cold and dry.

Now, in a new study published Wednesday in the journal Progress of scienceChina’s first Mars rover finds evidence of water there potentially within the last 700 million years.

HERE IS THE BACKGROUND – Recent findings suggest that liquid water may have once flowed through Amazonian terrain, such as the Lyot crater in the northern lowlands of Mars. However, these lowlands are largely covered in dust, making it difficult for orbiters over the Red Planet to detect water-laden minerals, except for ancient samples ejected by cosmic impacts.

Researchers from the Chinese National Academy of Sciences analyzed data from the Zhurong rover of China’s Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. The rover touched down in the northern lowlands of the Red Planet in 2021, specifically in southern Utopia Planitia, the largest known cosmic impact crater on Mars.

Previous research suggested that the area around the Zhurong landing site may be approximately 700 million years old. Various geological features there, such as valleys and ridges, also suggest that water may potentially exist just below its surface.

The rover examined local rocks with a telescopic microimaging camera, an infrared scanner, and a laser that destroyed the rock to help sensors investigate the chemical composition of the resulting vapor.

Viking 2 took this photo of Utopia Planitia in 1979. HUM Images/Universal Image Group/Getty Images

WHAT DID YOU FIND? — The researchers saw a brightly hued rock that suggested it is “duricrust,” a hard layer that forms when water deposits minerals on or near the surface. They noted that this duricrust may have formed due to a substantial amount of liquid water, either rising groundwater or melting subterranean ice, which flowed perhaps due to volcanic activity or a cosmic impact. This is in contrast to the thinner, weaker crusts seen at other landing sites, which may have formed due to diffusion of water vapor from the atmosphere.

“Liquid water may have been underground much more recently in Mars’ history than previously thought,” says planetary scientist Tanya Harrison, director of Strategic Science Initiatives at Planet Labs, who was not involved in this research. Reverse. “That’s exciting from an astrobiological point of view because on Earth, anywhere there’s liquid water, there’s usually something that has managed to survive there. So it offers the potential for a small habitable environment on Mars in the geological past.” recent”.

However, “while the minerals in these rocks contain hydrated minerals, minerals that contain water molecules in their structure, that doesn’t mean there is liquid water or ice present in this area now, which is important to note,” he says. Harrison. “A large buried ice deposit was discovered a few hundred kilometers northwest of the Zhurong landing site a few years ago, but none was found in this area by ground-penetrating radar instruments on two satellites currently orbiting Mars.”

Utopia Planitia, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

WHATS NEXT? — “Zhurong has a ground-penetrating radar instrument on board, so it will be interesting to see what it reveals about the top few meters of ground below the rover throughout its drive,” says Harrison. “Perhaps it will reveal ice on a scale too small for us to resolve from orbit. That would not only strengthen the hypothesis of how these salty rocks formed, but also provide a source of water ice for future human exploration.”

So far, the buried ice detected on Mars “tends to be at higher latitudes, where temperatures and weather conditions are not good for a human base,” says Harrison. “Zhurong, however, is about 25°N, on a par with Miami here on Earth, much warmer in a relative sense than higher latitudes, and with fewer dust storms.”

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