A significant amount of water exists under a canyon system on Mars, scientists recently discovered.
The discovery came from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which was sent to Mars in 2016 to map the hydrogen near the planet's surface. Experts are not sure whether the water detected is ice or water-rich minerals.
“This finding is an amazing first step, but we need more observations to know for sure what form of water we’re dealing with,” Hakan Svedhem, co-author of the study, said. “[The finding] reveals a large, not-too-deep, easily exploitable reservoir of water in this region of Mars.”
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The team does not know for sure how deep the water goes, but they know the water source starts within a meter below the surface, Svedhem told the Washington Examiner. He said this discovery is significant because the water appears much closer to the planet's surface than prior discoveries in which scientists estimated water was a few kilometers below the planet's surface. That means the water could be more easily accessible to explorers.
The ExoMars program is a joint initiative between the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos to investigate Mars. The orbiter that collected this data used advanced sensors to map hydrogen levels a meter below the surface of Valles Marineris, which is the large canyon system on the Martian planet.
“Knowing more about how and where water exists on present-day Mars is essential to understand what happened to Mars’ once-abundant water, and helps our search for habitable environments, possible signs of past life,” Colin Wilson, ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist, said.
Valles Marineris is an estimated five times deeper and ten times longer than the Grand Canyon on Earth, according to the ESA. It is the largest known canyon in the solar system.
Svedhem told the Washington Examiner that the data his team collected from the orbiter indicate they found water because of the levels of hydrogen it detected.
"There are not many molecules that we can imagine that can contain hydrogen that will be subsurface, water is the most abundant one," he said. "We know from experience that we can never expect more than 10% of water equivalent hydrogen being bound to other molecules in the form of hydrogen minerals so if it's more than that, and in this case it's much more than that — we see up to 40% — we can conclude that it must be with water."
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Svedhem said prior theoretical models that look at temperature, pressure, and other metrics would have indicated that water should not be there. He said this new finding means that scientists will likely have to adjust their models.
"It has big implications for future exploration," he added. "First for uses of the astronauts on potential missions, but also for use as fuel to fly back to Earth."