The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter discovered huge deposits of ice water on Mars. Credit: ESA

Spacecraft Exploring Mars Finds Hidden Water in Mars’ Grand Canyon

ExoMars discovered a huge area of free ice close to Mars' equator. The accumulation of a valuable resource in this relatively warm zone may be useful for future manned missions to Mars.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter: Launch, Mission, Goals

The Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft was launched into space in 2016 as part of the first phase of the ExoMars program, whose task is to search for possible traces of life on Mars. Using four scientific instruments, the spacecraft searches for water in the surface layer of the planet, as well as traces of methane and other substances in the atmosphere (for example, propane, ethane, and sulfur compounds).

The associated gases can be used to indirectly identify the source of methane. If it is found in the presence of sulfur dioxide, then the geological activity of the planet will be considered the most likely source of methane. In the event that, in addition to methane, other hydrocarbons, such as propane or ethane, are found in the atmosphere, this may indicate the presence of a biosphere on Mars.

In addition to its own scientific mission, Trace Gas Orbiter will also serve as a repeater for signals from the ExoMars rover and landing platform, which are due to travel to Mars in 2022.

In purple, you see the most water-rich region discovered by ExoMars. Up to 40% of the near-surface material is composed of water. Credit: ESA
In purple, you see the most water-rich region discovered by ExoMars. Up to 40% of the near-surface material is composed of water. Credit: ESA

The Trace Gas Orbiter discovered huge water deposits on Mars

There are several instruments onboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter that are used to observe the planet’s surface. The FREND neutron detector, manufactured by the Russian Roscosmos, monitors for changes in the energy of cosmic ray neutrons. If they get reflected in areas abundant in hydrogen atoms, the instrument detects the changes in the energy spectrum.

FREND detected one such area with unexpected amounts of hydrogen in a canyon system known as Valles Marineris. The presence of hydrogen can be interpreted in various ways. Scientists note that water on Mars exists in three states – as wet sand, chemically bound water (hydrated minerals), and free ice. The third type is the more preferable option as it is the easiest to extract.

Perspective image of the Valles Marineris canyon, made by the European mission "Mars Express". Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
Perspective image of the Valles Marineris canyon, made by the European mission “Mars Express”. Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

It should be noted that the FREND instrument can detect water up to about a meter below the surface of Mars. That means that the deposits discovered are located either located under a thin dust layer or directly on the surface.

However, this also means that astronomers cannot estimate the volume of water ice since the instrument cannot measure the real depth. We only know that the area has been estimated at around 41 thousand square kilometers, which is more than the current territory of the Netherlands, for example.

Curiously, this area on Mars consisting of ice is located near the equator of the planet – the most promising region for colonization. What’s important is that there might really be water there – previously, it was believed that water ice exists only near the poles. This breakthrough discovery could turn out to be key for future missions on Mars and further analysis should be sufficient for ESA/NASA to decide on a mission to this location.


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Sources:

Bartels, M. (2021, December 15). Scientists spot water ice under the ‘grand canyon’ of Mars. Space.com.
Bergan, B. (2021, December 15). Scientists just found a ‘significant’ volume of water inside Mars’ grand canyon. Interesting Engineering.
ESA. (n.d.). Exomars discovers hidden water in Mars’ grand canyon.
Mitrofanov, I., Malakhov, A., Djachkova, M., Golovin, D., Litvak, M., Mokrousov, M., Sanin, A., Svedhem, H., & Zelenyi, L. (2021, November 19). The evidence for unusually high hydrogen abundances in the central part of Valles Marineris on Mars. Icarus.
Phys.org. (2021, December 14). Locked in stone: Mars’ missing water might be stored in clay mineral.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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