China’s Mars rover has made another discovery that may force astronomers to address previous hypotheses regarding the origins of water on the red planet.
The Zhurong Rover, part of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) ambitious Tianwen-1 project, has collected enough compelling evidence to suggest that a massive impact site on the surface held water during the Amazonian period. This is far more recent than is widely assumed.
Previously scientists speculated that Mars was home to great bodies of water dotted with continents and a dense atmosphere, similar to Earth in many aspects.
The landing area of NASA’s Perseverance Rover, the Jezero Crater, was indeed once a large lake. However, there is also some evidence to suggest that Mars was also a frigid planet in its history.
If this were the case, the landscape would bear the makings of ancient land ice formations, yet no such sites have been located by either the Chinese or American space programmes.
Using the vast amount of data collected by Zhurong, a Chinese research team believes that water may have shaped the geography far more recently than previously hypothesized.
The mineral properties of regolith in the Utopia Planitia Basin, the planet’s largest impact site located on Mars’ northern lowlands, was analysed by Yang Liu and his colleagues.
Their findings revealed that water may exist underneath the planet’s surface in the form of hydrated minerals and perhaps even deposits of ground ice, a hugely important resource if humans want to establish any sort of permanent inhabitance.
Zhurong’s arsenal of sophisticated equipment enables the car-sized robot to essentially run numerous experiments remotely. Its detailed breakdown of soil in the Utopia Planitia region was thanks to a laser-induced spectrometer, telescopic equipment and a short-wave infrared spectrometer that provides detailed mineralogy breakdowns from between 1.6 and 7 metres away.
Several brightly coloured rocks captured on Zhurong’s impressive cameras caught the attention of the team. They found that the unique structures were “duricrust” formed by rising ground water or melting ice beneath Mars’ surface.
Zhurong has called Mars home for more than a year, making contact in May 2021 after a nervy nine-minute blackout with mission control. In its time there, the plucky rover has travelled 1.537 kilometres and taken hundreds of detailed images.
Zhurong’s official service time was only expected to be until August 2021, but the rover has remained largely functional and will continue to relay data to Earth-bound scientists for the foreseeable future.