Scientists find cracked layers on Martian dunes, indicating salt-rich watery environment in recent history.
Data from China’s Zhurong rover has uncovered cracked layers on miniature Martian dunes, suggesting that the Red Planet was a salt-rich, watery world as recently as 400,000 years ago.
Martian Water’s Impact on Sand Dune Formation
Researchers analyzing data from the Zhurong rover found cracked layers on small Martian dunes in the Utopia Planitia region, indicating that Mars had a salt-rich, watery environment not long ago. These findings shed light on intriguing surface features formed by “modern water” between 1.4 million and 400,000 years ago.
Zhurong Rover’s Exploration of Utopia Planitia
Since its landing in May 2021, the Zhurong rover has investigated the surface composition of four nearby crescent-shaped dunes in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The rover’s analysis revealed thin, fractured crusts and ridges on the dunes, which likely formed due to melting pockets of water.
Water on Mars: A Recent Discovery
While scientists have long believed that early Mars contained abundant liquid water about three billion years ago, the new study suggests that water from the planet’s icy polar regions wafted to lower latitudes just a few million years ago, settling atop the Utopia Planitia dunes.
Formation of Hydrated Minerals on Mars
When the Zhurong rover approached its target dunes, it used its laser-induced breakdown spectrometer to zap sand grains into millimeter-sized particles. The analysis revealed hydrated minerals such as sulfates, silica, iron oxide, and chlorides, which the study team believes formed in the presence of water during Mars’ late Amazonian era.
Water Vapor Migration and Saltwater Formation
Researchers theorize that water vapor traveled from Martian poles to lower latitudes like Zhurong’s location a few million years ago due to a different tilt that had Mars’ poles pointed more directly toward the sun. The drifting vapor condensed and fell as snow far from the poles, eventually forming saltwater as it interacted with salts in Martian sand dunes.
Implications for Future Mars Missions
Zhurong’s discoveries of water activity on and inside salty Martian dunes have prompted researchers to propose future missions to search for salt-tolerant microbes similar to those found in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Zhurong Rover: No longer operational
After a prolonged period of uncertainty regarding China’s Zhurong Mars rover’s silence, mission officials have disclosed the probable reason for the anomaly: its solar panels were covered with dust. NASA’s InSight lander also faced a similar predicament a few months back, as the buildup of Martian dust on its solar panels caused it to lose power.
The study was published in the journal Science Advances on April 28.
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