A massive water deposit almost twice the size of Vermont has been discovered just beneath the surface of Mars. Whether bound to other minerals or stored as water ice, the new discovery made by the European Space Administration (ESA) was significantly larger than previously expected, offering a potential target for future colonization.
BACKGROUND: MARS WATER ICE PREVIOUSLY SCARCE
In the last few decades, the case for a watery past on Mars has been repeatedly made. Some present water has been found as well, but the majority of those sparse deposits reside at the planet’s poles in the form of frozen polar ice caps or too deep within Mars to be usable for human explorers.
Scant amounts of water stored within other minerals have been found in other regions, but the missions that found those traces were only able to measure water content on the planet’s surface.
Now, the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has returned new results that show a massive amount of water, which also appears to be available just under the planet’s arid surface.
ANALYSIS: WATER DEPOSIT HIDING JUST BELOW MARTIAN SURFACE
As lead author of the new study and principal investigator, Mitrofanov used the Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector, or FREND, to search for hydrogen, a key component of water, which they already believed may lie just below the surface. After analyzing the Valles Marineris region of Mars, often referred to as the red planet’s Grand Canyon, they finally found what they were looking for.
“FREND revealed an area with an unusually large amount of hydrogen in the colossal Valles Marineris canyon system,’ said Mitrofanov. “Assuming the hydrogen we see is bound into water molecules, as much as 40% of the near-surface material in this region appears to be water.”
“We found a central part of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water,” added Alexey Malakhov, a fellow team member at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and co-author of the published study, “far more water than we expected. This is very much like Earth’s permafrost regions, where water ice permanently persists under dry soil because of the constant low temperatures.”
OUTLOOK: SEARCH FOR HABITABLE ENVIRONMENTS & SIGNS OF LIFE
The team notes that the instrument they used found hydrogen atoms, and that they aren’t completely sure whether the water they’ve found is in the form of ice, or if it is trapped within other minerals.
“This finding is an amazing first step,” said study co-author Håkan Svedhem of ESA’s ESTEC in the Netherlands, and former ESA project scientist for the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, “but we need more observations to know for sure what form of water we’re dealing with.”
However, the team notes, regardless of how much of this water is ice, the significant find shows the effectiveness of the TGO instrument, as well as potentially pointing the way to a huge reservoir of usable water just waiting for future Mars colonists.
“Regardless of the outcome, the finding demonstrates the unrivalled abilities of TGO’s instruments in enabling us to ‘see’ below Mars’ surface,” said Svedhem, “and reveals a large, not-too-deep, easily exploitable reservoir of water in this region of Mars.”
“Knowing more about how and where water exists on present-day Mars is essential to understand what happened to Mars’ once-abundant water,” added Colin Wilson, ESA’s ExoMars TGO project scientist, “and helps our search for habitable environments, possible signs of past life, and organic materials from Mars’ earliest days.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter:@plain_fiction