Chinese rover, Zhurong, has discovered that water on Mars may be more widespread than previously thought. The discovery is based on observations of Martian sand dunes by the rover. The collected data highlight new potentially fertile areas in the hottest regions of Mars. In these areas, conditions may be suitable for the existence of life, although further studies and research are needed to confirm it.
Zhurong still in hibernation
The news comes just days after mission leaders acknowledged that the Zhurong rover is still in hibernation from last Martian winter. “Its solar panels are probably covered with dust. This interrupts its main source of energy and prevents the rover from functioning again” said Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of the mission.
When Zhurong was fully operational, it observed salt-rich dunes with cracks and crusts. These regions, according to researchers, were mixed with the melting of morning frost or snow until a few hundred thousand years ago. The conditions at that time were similar to those currently on Mars, with dried-up rivers and lakes. Studying the structure and chemical composition of these dunes can provide information about water activity during that period, the team wrote in a study published in Science Advances (ref.).
“We think that a small amount of water may still be present. We’re talking about a layer no thicker than a film on the surface” said co-author Xiaoguang Qin of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics. Make no mistake, the rover did not directly detect water in the form of frost or ice. But Qin said that computer simulations and observations by other rovers indicate that conditions could be suitable for water appearance at certain times of the year today.
Martian frost pockets
Small pockets of water due to thawing of ice or snow mixed with salt likely caused small cracks on hard surfaces. Researchers have ruled out wind as a cause, as well as carbon dioxide-generated ice, which makes up most of Mars’ atmosphere. Martian frost has been observed since NASA‘s Viking missions in the 1970s. It has always been thought that these light morning frost dustings occur in specific locations under specific conditions.
Zhurong, on the other hand, provided “evidence that there may be a wider distribution of this process on Mars than previously identified” said Mary Bourke of Trinity College Dublin, an expert in Martian geology. As small as the water niche discovered by Zhurong on Mars may be, it could be important in identifying more habitable spots on the planet.