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Mars: Discovery under the "Grand Canyon" on the planet stuns experts

Mars: Discovery under the “Grand Canyon” on the planet stuns experts

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Under Valles Marineris, the “Grand Canyon of Mars”, researchers discovered a large amount of water with the help of the European-Russian “Trace Gas Orbiter”.

Frankfurt – There is water on Mars, especially at the poles, and this is already known. But now researchers have made a groundbreaking new discovery on the Red Planet: massive amounts of water in an area called Valles Marineris (Mariner Valleys). It is a huge fault system that extends 4,000 km in length and 700 km in width and has valleys up to 7,000 m deep. The system is also called the “Grand Canyon” of Mars and is the focus of the new discovery.

In order to find water in the “Grand Canyon” on Mars, researchers evaluated data from the European-Russian “Gas Orbital Trace” (TGO), which has been orbiting the Red Planet since October 2016. The orbiter contains the FREND (Epithelial Precision Neutron Detector) instrument. ) on board, which can look up to one meter below the surface of Mars and reveal hydrogen – a component of water.

Igor Mitrofanov, of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow is the lead author of a new study describing the discovery of water on Mars and Published in the specialized magazine Icarus Will be.

They discovered huge amounts of water in the “Grand Canyon of Mars”

With the help of the FREND instrument, the researchers were able to detect an area “with an unusually high hydrogen content” in the Valles Marineris Valley system, Mitrofanov reported in a communication from the European Space Organization ESA.

JM Marineris on Mars. The researchers discovered large deposits of water there.

© DLR / dpa

“Assuming that the hydrogen we see is bound to water molecules, forty percent of the near-surface material in this region appears to be water,” the researcher sums up the discovery on Mars. The area where scientists suspect the water is said to be about the size of the Netherlands and extends into deep valleys in an area called Candor Chaus.

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In order to detect water on Mars, Mitrofanov and other scientists evaluated observations from May 2018 to February 2021. The FREND instrument did not detect light, but neutrons. “Neutrons are generated when high-energy particles known as galactic cosmic rays strike Mars,” explains co-author Alexei Malakhov. Dry soil emits more neutrons than wet soil, so it was possible to infer how much water was in the soil. Because the FREND instrument enables better spatial resolution than other instruments, it is now possible to detect water that has not been observed before.

Data from the Esa-Mars TGO orbiter shows water in Valles Marineris. The colored scale shows the amount of “water equivalent hydrogen” (WEH) by weight (wt%).

© I. Mitrofanov et al. (2021)

Water on Mars: Researchers evaluate data from a European rover around Mars

“We discovered that a central part of Valles Marineris is filled with water — much more water than we expected,” Malakhov confirms, comparing the find to land: “It is similar to permafrost regions on Earth where water ice is caused by persistent low temperatures beneath the dry soil.” Water can exist as ice or as water chemically bound to other minerals in the soil. “In general, we think that this water is more present in the form of ice,” Malakhov says, summarizing the research team’s findings.

JM Marineris The Rift Valley System on Mars
position at the equator
Long 4000 km
wide Up to 700 km
Depth up to 7000 meters

In the region of Mars where researchers have found water, water ice usually evaporates due to temperature and pressure conditions; The same goes for chemically bound water: only with the right combination of pressure, temperature, and water do minerals on Mars lose water. This indicates that in Valles Marineris there must be a special mix of conditions in order to conserve water – or to replenish it, according to an Esa announcement.

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Mars Research: ‘An incredible first step’

Håkan Svedhem, study co-author and Esa employee, is already looking to the future: “This finding is an incredible first step, but we need more observations to know for sure what water looks like.” But this discovery, the capabilities of the “Trace Gas Orbiter” instruments, which show “a large, not very deep and easily accessible water reservoir in this region of Mars.”

The “Trace Gas Orbiter”, which has been orbiting Mars since 2016, is the first part of the European-Russian ExoMars program. The second part is the launch to the Red Planet in 2022: the European Rosalind Franklin rover sits on the Russian “Kazachuk” platform and is supposed to find out if there is life on Mars. And he’s not alone in charge of this task: NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are also on board. The “Perseverance” Mars probe has recently caused quite a stir: first it solved “one of the greatest mysteries” on Mars, then answered a question about Mars that researchers have so far been desperate for. (tab)

Base list photo: © Nasa / JPL / USGS