Giant reservoir of 'hidden water' discovered on Mars

An artist's impression of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Just a few feet under the surface of Mars, an immense reservoir of water has been discovered.

Researchers have found "huge volumes of water" within one of the solar system's greatest canyons, Valles Marineris. In the 15,830 square miles (41,000 square kilometers) area, experts estimate that 40% of the near-surface material is water ice.

At Candor Chaos, an area the size of the Netherlands in the heart of Valles Marineris, data from the Trace Gas Orbiter's (TGO) Fine-Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND) instrument revealed exceptionally high quantities of hydrogen, which along with oxygen makes up water. Because water is so essential to life on Earth, finding signs of water on Mars might reveal whether or not life ever existed on the planet.

In March 2022, the journal Icarus will publish a study as part of a joint effort between the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

"We discovered a core area of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water—far more water than we anticipated," co-author Alexey Malakhov, a scientist at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stated in a press release. Water ice beneath dry soil is similar to that seen in the Earth's permafrost zones because of the continual low temperatures.

More than 40% of this area looks to be water, according to research lead author Igor Mitrofanov, if the hydrogen identified is bonded together with oxygen to create water molecules.

Tectonic cracks on the Martian surface have been smoothed and widened by wind and water erosion, creating the Valles Marineris canyon. To put that in perspective, it's 10 times longer and 5 times deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona at 2,500 miles and 8 kilometers, respectively. According to NASA, if the Valles Marineris existed on Earth, it would run from New York to California, covering the whole continent.

To look for signs of water on Mars, the TGO's FREND instrument detects neutrons released at or just below the Martian surface. The orbiter has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2018. Dry surfaces release more neutrons than wet ones, which scientists can use to estimate the quantity of water present on a surface based on the number of neutrons it generates when intense particles known as cosmic rays contact the Martian soil. The TGO can identify water using this technique a meter below the Martian surface.

It has been difficult to locate water ice in Mars's equatorial area in the past, as scientists have only been able to uncover strange traces of the material in the dust. Since the TGO can reach the upper subsurface, our capacity to locate pockets of water on Mars has increased significantly.

According to Mikhail Mitrofanov, the TGO mission will allow scientists to explore one meter into the Martian surface to find water-rich "oases" that couldn't be found with prior equipment.

Researchers will need to conduct further tests before determining what kind of water they've found — ice or water that has been chemically linked to minerals in the soil. "Overall, we believe this water most likely exists in the form of ice," Malakhov said, citing the abundance of water near the surface in the area.

After the finding, a big, readily accessible water reservoir has been located that future rovers might land near and explore — both for water and evidence of life.

According to ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist Colin Wilson: "Knowing how and where water exists on present-day Mars is vital to understand what happened to Mars' once-abundant water and supports our search for habitable habitats and possibly traces of past life."

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