China’s Zhurong Mars Rover finds evidence of water in Mars’ sand dunes

China’s Zhurong Mars Rover finds evidence of water in Mars’ sand dunes

A selfie taken by the Zhurong rover next to its landing pad, captured with a wireless camera. Credit: China National Space Administration

The Zhurong rover, part of China’s Tianwen-1[{” attribute=””>Mars mission, has found evidence of liquid water at low Martian latitudes, indicating potentially habitable environments. This discovery, contradicting previous beliefs that water could only exist in solid or gaseous states on Mars, was made by analyzing morphological features and mineral compositions of dunes in the landing area.

The Zhurong rover has found evidence of water on dune surfaces on modern Mars by providing key observational proof of liquid water at low Martian latitudes, according to a study led by Prof. Xiaoguang Qin from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics (IGG) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The study was published on April 28 in the journal Science Advances.

Researchers from the National Astronomical Observatories of CAS and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of CAS were also involved in the study.

Mars Water Traces on Bright Sand Dunes

Water traces on bright sand dunes. (a) Topographic contour map of the environs where the trace is located. The coordinate system is east-north-up (ENU) local Cartesian coordinate and the origin is that of the rover coordinate system. The background Digital Orthophoto Map (DOM) photo was taken by NaTeCam. (b) MSCam bird’s-eye-view photo showing a strip-like trace and a likely water-soaked fragmented soil block. (c) Enlarged photo showing polygonal cracks and bright polygonal ridges. (d) Enlarged photo showing circular region with the strip-like trace as a part. (e) NaTeCam 3D image of an interdune depression between two dark longitudinal dunes. (f) A cross-section of the dune along the profile of the white dash line in (e). Credit: IGGCAS

Previous studies have provided proof of a large amount of liquid water on early Mars, but with the escape of the early Martian atmosphere during the later period, the climate changed dramatically. Very low pressure and water vapor content make it difficult for liquid water to sustainably exist on Mars today. Thus, it has been widely believed that water can only exist there in solid or gaseous forms.

Nonetheless, droplets observed on the Phoenix’s robotic arm prove that salty liquid water can appear in the summer at current high latitudes on Mars. Numerical simulations have also shown that climatic conditions suitable for liquid water can briefly occur in certain areas of Mars today. Until now, though, no evidence has shown the presence of liquid water at low latitudes on Mars.

Now, however, findings from the Zhurong rover fill the gap. The Zhurong rover, which is part of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars exploration mission, successfully landed on Mars on May 15, 2021. The landing site is located at the southern edge of the Utopia Planitia (UP) Plain (109.925 E, 25.066 N), where the northern lowlands unit is located.

The researchers used data obtained by the Navigation and Terrain Camera (NaTeCam), Multispectral Camera (MSCam), and Mars Surface Composition Detector (MarSCoDe) aboard the Zhurong rover to study the various scale surface features and physical compositions of the sand dunes in the landing area.

They found some important morphological features on the dune surfaces, such as crusts, cracks, grains, polygonal ridges, and a ribbon-like trace. Analysis of the spectral data revealed that the surface dune layer is rich in hydrated sulphates, hydrated silica (especially opal-CT), trivalent iron oxide minerals (especially ferrihydrate) and possibly chlorides.

“According to the meteorological data measured by Zhurong and other Mars rover, we concluded that these dune surface properties are related to the involvement of liquid brine formed from subsequent melting of frost/snow falling on the salt-containing dune surfaces when cooling occurs,” Professor Chen said.

Specifically, salts in sand dunes cause frost/snow to melt at lower temperatures to form salty liquid water. When the brine dries, hydrated sulfates, opals, iron oxides and other hydrated minerals precipitate sand particles to form sand aggregates and even crust. Then the shell is cracked by shrinkage. Subsequent thaw/frost further forms polygonal ridges and a band-like trace on the crustal surface.

The estimated age of the dunes (ca. 0.4–1.4 Ma) and the relationship between the three water phases indicate that the equatorial transport of water vapor from the polar ice sheet during large deflection phases in the late Martian Amazonian period led to the recurrence of moist environments at lower latitudes. Therefore, a scenario for water activity was proposed, that is, cooling at low latitudes during the large inclination phases of Mars leads to frost / snow precipitation, and thus leads to the formation of crusts and assemblages on the surface of the salty sand dunes, thus solidifying the dunes and leaving traces. From the activity of liquid brine.

The discovery provides key observational evidence for liquid water at lower latitudes of Mars, where surface temperatures are relatively warmer and more suitable for life than at higher latitudes.

“This is important for understanding the evolutionary history of the Martian climate, for the search for a habitable environment, and for providing key clues for the future search for life,” said Professor Chen.

Reference: “Recent Water at Low Latitudes on Mars: Possible Evidence from Dune Surfaces” by Xiaoguang Qin, Xin Ren, Xu Wang, Jianjun Liu, Haibin Wu, Xingguo Zeng, Yong Sun, Zhaopeng Chen, Shihao Zhang, Yizhong Zhang Wangli Chen, Bin Liu, Dawei Liu, Lin Guo, Kangkang Li, Xiangzhao Zeng, Hai Huang, Qing Zhang, Songzheng Yu, Chunlai Li, Zhengtang Guo, April 28, 2023, Science advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.add8868

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