Chinese rover makes surprising discovery of water at Mars landing site

Zhurong landed on a large plain in Mars’ northern hemisphere called Utopia Planitia on May 15, 2021 – where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

The rover’s main mission, which lasted three months, was to search for signs of ancient life. He studied minerals, the environment, and the distribution of water and ice in the plain, which is part of the larger impact basin in the northern Martian lowlands. The rover continues to explore its landing site and send information back to the Tianwen-1 orbiter circling the planet.

Data returned from the rover’s initial study of the basin suggests that Utopia Planitia’s basin contained water at a time when many scientists thought Mars was dry and cold.

A study detailing the findings published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

A changing planet

Mars was once hot and humid billions of years ago, but something changed and made the planet the arid, frozen wasteland it is today. The Red Planet entered this period during what is known as the Amazon Epoch, which began about 3 billion years ago and is still ongoing.

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

The researchers analyzed data from the Zhurong rover on sediments and minerals found in the basin as well as analysis performed by several of the rover’s instruments on its environment. They found hydrated silica and sulfates, similar to the hydrated minerals discovered by other missions studying different regions of the red planet.

The Zhurong rover gazes at its lander while providing a view of the landing site.

The minerals were contained in brightly-toned rocks, where the colors help highlight their composition. The researchers determined that these rocks at the landing site constitute a layer of duricrust. This type of layer can form when a significant amount of water, either rising groundwater or melting underground ice, turns the ground into a hard crust after the water has evaporated.

"Significant amounts of water"  found on Mars' massive version of the Grand Canyon

The discovery of this layer of hard crust, which is thicker than the hard crust likely formed by atmospheric water vapor found at other Martian landing sites, suggests that Utopia Planitia had a longer water cycle. active tens of millions of years ago than predicted by scientists.

This adds to the growing evidence uncovered by Mars missions that the Red Planet has gone through cycles of wet and hot, and dry and cold, rather than causing lasting and dramatic climate change. These climatic ebbs and flows may have been the result of active volcanoes or impacts from other celestial objects, Yang said.

Fuel exploration

China has just become the second country to drive a rover on the surface of Mars

This discovery surprised the researchers because previous observations from orbiters had not revealed the signature of hydrated minerals at the landing site. That’s why exploration using the rover was essential, Yang said.

Utopia Planitia has attracted the interest of scientists as some believe the area once hosted an ocean.

“Thus the discovery of hydrated minerals (a) significant insights into the geologic and hydrous history of the region and the climate evolution of Mars,” Yang said.

Yang said he hoped the rover could analyze the layers of a crater in the plain to find more information about the history of water in the area.

This perspective shows the discarded lander heat shield in the background of the landing site.

The findings also suggest that there may be “considerable stores” of water in hydrated minerals or even ground ice, which future human explorers could use on crewed missions to Mars.

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

Leave a Comment