Rover discovers water on Mars

Zhurong
Picture taken by China's Zhurong rover on the surface of Mars Photo credit China National Space Administration

A new discovery on Earth’s closest neighboring planet indicates it may have been wetter more recently than previously thought.

China’s Zhurong rover landed on the surface of Mars nearly a year ago, touching down in a section of the planet called Utopia Planitia on May 15, 2021, for a three-month information-gathering mission.

Now, just days shy of the one-year anniversary of the beginning of that intergalactic jaunt, China has announced some of the rover’s findings, which indicate that water existed on the planet at a time when it was originally assumed to have been already barren.

The findings were published Wednesday in Science Advances, a scientific journal.

“The most significant and novel thing is that we found hydrated minerals at the landing site which stands on the young Amazonian terrain, and these hydrated minerals are (indicators) for the water activities such as (groundwater) activities,” said lead study author Yang Liu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ State Key Laboratory of Space Weather and the academy’s Center for Excellence in Comparative Planetology.

Analysts pored over the data mined by the Zhurong and found hydrated silica and sulfates inside bright-toned rocks that were determined to be a layer of duricrust too thick to be formed by anything but a great amount of water, whether it be from rising groundwater or melting subsurface ice.

That amount of water hardens the soil after it evaporates to a much greater degree than simple atmospheric vapor.

It has long been hypothesized by scientists that Utopia Planitia was once the site of an ocean, and these new findings further support that theory.

“So the discovery of hydrated minerals (has) significant indications on the geological and water history of the region and the climate evolution of Mars,” Yang said.

It also indicates that there might still be “considerable stores” of water to be found on the Red Planet.

“One of the most important resources for human explorers is water,” Yang said. “Hydrated minerals, which contain structural water, and ground ice can be used as the important water resource on Mars.”