A new instrument on board the ExoMars orbiter, which manages to “see” a meter below the layer of dust that covers the surface of Mars, has revealed a huge reservoir of water, not too deep and easily exploitable, in the area of the spectacular canyon system known as Valles Marineris.
The ExoMars orbiter has discovered an important Water reserve in the region of Mars known as Valles Marineris, similar to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The discovery was made thanks to a new instrument, which is capable of detecting water by “reading” the ground one meter below the layer of dust that covers the Martian surface. The identified water would be easy to exploit and could be extremely useful in future manned missions to the red planet.
According to a Press release of the European Space Agency, the FREND instrument from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on ExoMars revealed an area with an unusually large amount of hydrogen in the colossal Valles Marineris canyon system. The study has recently been published in the journal Icarus.
As the hydrogen observed is bound to water molecules, scientists think that up to 40% of the material near the surface in this Martian region would be water, in what would constitute a reserve so far never confirmed on Mars. The water-rich area is roughly the size of the Netherlands.
Water on mars
Other space missions have searched for water close to the surface, such as ice that covers grains of dust on the ground or water encased in minerals, always at lower latitudes on Mars. Although small amounts of water have been discovered, the presence of a significant reservoir has never been verified. However, previous studies have only explored the planet’s surface itself, ignoring the possible existence of deeper water reservoirs below the dust layer.
On the other hand, possible watter deposits at greater depths, in the middle latitudes of Mars. The problem is that these resources are several kilometers below the surface, a condition that makes their exploitation particularly difficult. In this way, the discovered reserve becomes even more valuable.
Neutrons reveal Martian water
The FREND neutron telescope it is capable of penetrating the dust of the Martian soil and seeing a meter below the surface, locating “oases” rich in water that could not be detected with previous instruments. When galactic cosmic rays collide with Mars, neutrons are produced: drier soils emit more neutrons than wetter ones. In this way, the instrument can deduce how much water exists in a given region by observing the neutrons emitted by the soil.
The data obtained with this instrument indicate that a central part of the region of Valles Marineris it has large amounts of water, in a magnitude even greater than expected by the researchers. Scientists believe that the area would behave similarly to Earth’s permafrost regions, where water ice persists permanently under dry soil thanks to constant low temperatures.
In another order, the specialists suggest that in Valles Marineris there must be a special combination of conditions not yet identified that allow preserve or replenish water, in an area that in theory would not have the combination of characteristics required to accumulate these amounts of water.
It is worth remembering that Valles Marineris is the largest canyon in the Solar System, and possibly the most dramatic landscape on Mars. It runs along the planet’s equator, just east of the Tharsis region. It was discovered by NASA’s Mariner 9 probe, in its orbital flight in 1971. For its part, ExoMars It is a space mission oriented to the search for some form of life on Mars: it is a joint project of the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, its Russian counterpart.
The evidence for unusually high hydrogen abundances in the central part of Valles Marineris on Mars. I.Mitrofanov, A.Malakhov, M.Djachkova, D.Golovin, M.Litvak, M.Mokrousov, A.Sanin, H.Svedhem and L.Zelenyi. Icarus (2021). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.icarus.2021.114805
Cover photo: Perspective view of the Candor Chasma area, one of the largest canyons in the Valles Marineris system on Mars. Credits: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.
Video and podcast: edited by Pablo Javier Piacente based on elements and sources free of copyright. Video image credits: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO / ATG medialab / I. Mitrofanov et al. / Daniele Colucci and Nicolás Lobos on Unsplash.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.