A researcher orbiter circling around Mars has discovered “significant amounts of water” underneath the surface of an area on the red planet similar to the Grand Canyon, according to the European Space Agency.
The orbiter, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, was launched by the European Space Agency along with the Russian Space Agency in 2016 and has been orbiting Mars ever since, with the goal of learning more about the gases and the possibility of life on the planet.
Recently, the orbiter was scanning an area of Mars called Valles Marineris, using the Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector instrument, or FREND, which can detect hydrogen on and up to 3 feet underneath Mars’ soil.
The Valles Marineris is a 2,500-mile-long canyon on Mars with parts that are 4 miles deep. Not only is it 10 times longer and 4 times deeper than the Grand Canyon, but the Valles Marineris’ length is nearly as long as the entire United States.
Data collected from the instrument from May 2018 to Feb. 2021 showed the middle part of the canyon contained a large amount of water, indicating some form of life could possibly be sustained. The findings were published in the solar system journal Icarus on Wednesday.
“We found a central part of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water – far more water than we expected,” Alexey Malakhov, co-author of the study and part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.
Water being found on Mars isn’t a new discovery, as the planet’s polar regions are full of water ice that is frozen. Temperatures in this region are so cold that even carbon dioxide can freeze.
However, the Valles Marineris is located near the equator of the planet, where temperatures usually aren’t cold enough to have water ice. Igor Mitrofanov, lead author of the study and principal investigator of the FREND from the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the instrument allowed the team to discover things no other instrument could ever before.
“We can look down to (3 feet) below this dusty layer and see what’s really going on below Mars’ surface – and, crucially, locate water-rich ‘oases’ that couldn’t be detected with previous instruments,” Mitrofanov said. “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.”
The area of water, which the agency says is about the size of the Netherlands, was detected because the instrument looks for neutrons of the soil. Malakhov said this method shows there are less neutrons in wetter soil, and seeing distinct levels of neutron content allowed scientists to see “water features that weren’t spotted before.”
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Scientists are unsure whether the detected water is ice or water bound to the soil, but Alexey said it’s most likely in ice form, similar to the permafrost found throughout the Arctic region. Håkan Svedhem, co-author and former project scientist for the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, said the team must now discover what type of water is in the spoil.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter isn’t the only object trying to get more understanding on Mars.
The NASA Perseverance rover collected its first rock sample from the planet in September that is expected to come back to Earth. In October, the rover collected recordings of what Mars sounds like.
Next year, the European Space Agency will send the Rosalind Franklin rover and Russian surface platform Kazachok to Mars, which is expected to reach the planet in 2023. Those devices will work together to collect underground samples of Mars to look at what the planet was like in its early life, and if life ever existed on it.
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