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Researchers discover water in expansive canyon on Mars

By Jake Thomas
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Researchers discover water in expansive canyon on Mars
Researchers with the European Space Agency have discovered water in Valles Marineris, a deep and sweeping canyon system on Mars. Photo courtesy of European Space Agency

Dec. 16 (UPI) -- A European spacecraft orbiting Mars has identified a "water-rich area" about the size of the Netherlands in the heart of a canyon system that dwarfs the Earth's Grand Canyon.

The European Space Agency said on Wednesday that its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which the agency launched jointly with Russia's Roscosmos in 2016, spotted "significant amounts of water" in Mars' expansive Valles Marineris canyon system. Researchers published the findings in the journal Icarus.

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Water exists as ice on the planet's frigid polar regions, but temperatures near the planet's equators are not cold enough for exposed water to remain stable, according to the European Space Agency.

Alexey Malakhov, a researcher at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences who co-authored a study on the findings, said in a statement that the unexpected amount of water is "very much like Earth's permafrost regions." Water in these regions is stored in ice that permanently persists under the dry soil because of cold temperatures, he said.

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The water could be in the form of ice or chemically bound to other minerals in the soil, according to the European Space Agency. Malakhov said water likely exists in the form of ice because other observations reveal that minerals in this area of Mars usually don't contain much water.

"This finding is an amazing first step, but we need more observations to know for sure what form of water we're dealing with," said Håkan Svedhem, a co-author of the study and researcher at the agency's ESTEC in the Netherlands.

Along with a rover and surface platform the Trace Gas Orbiter is one of the ExoMars' two missions aimed at determining if life has ever existed on Mars.

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Researchers in September cast doubt on the search, pointing out that the relatively small planet may not be large enough to hold enough water to sustain life.

But researchers keep finding evidence of water on the planet.

NASA's Mars rover Perseverance found that Mars' Jezero Crater once contained a lake and saw violent floods that carried boulders into the crater, according to research published in October.

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Previous missions, such as the European Space Agency's Mars Express, have found only smaller amounts of water at lower latitudes on the planet's surface, according to the agency.

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"Knowing more about how and where water exists on present-day Mars is essential to understand what happened to Mars' once-abundant water, and helps our search for habitable environments, possible signs of past life, and organic materials from Mars' earliest days," said Colin Wilson, the agency's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist.

Hidden beneath the planet's surface, the water was discovered by the Trace Gas Orbiter's FREND instrument, which mapped the hydrogen in the planet's uppermost soil, according to the agency. The water-rich area overlaps with Candor Chaos canyon in an area that's been of particular interest in the search. It's part of the Valles Marineris canyon system that is 10 times longer and five times deeper than Earth's Grand Canyon.

The discovery makes the Valles Marineris a promising area for future human exploration, according to the agency.

"With TGO we can look down to one metre below this dusty layer and see what's really going on below Mars' surface -- and, crucially, locate water-rich 'oases' that couldn't be detected with previous instruments," Igor Mitrofanov, a researcher at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

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Dispatches from Mars: Perseverance rover sends images

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, using its Mastcam-Z camera system, captured this view of the Martian sunset on November 9, 2021, the 257th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Martian sunsets typically stand out for their distinctive blue color as fine dust in the atmosphere permits blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than colors with longer wavelengths. But this sunset looks different: Less dust in the atmosphere resulted in a more muted color than average. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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