Despite claims in the 1890s that Mars was filled with canals teeming with water, research over the past several decades has suggested that in fact, Mars has only a tiny amount of water, mostly near its surface. Then, during the 1970s, as part of NASA’s Mariner space orbiter program, dry river beds and canyons on Mars were discovered—the first indications that surface water may have once existed there. The Viking program subsequently found enormous river valleys on the planet, and in 2003 it was announced that the Mars Odyssey spacecraft had actually detected minute quantities of liquid water on and just below the surface, which was later confirmed by the Phoenix lander.
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Now, according to an article published yesterday in the journal Geology, there is evidence that Mars is home to vast reservoirs of water in its interior as well. The finding has weighty implications for our understanding of the geology of Mars, for hopes that the planet may have at some point in the past been home to extraterrestrial life and for the long-term prospects of human colonization there.
“There has been substantial evidence for the presence of liquid water at the Martian surface for some time,” said Erik Hauri, one of the study’s authors. “So it’s been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet’s interior have been so dry. This new research makes sense.”
The research team, led by led by University of New Mexico scientist Francis McCubbin, didn’t even have to go all the way to Mars to find the water—they just closely looked at a pair of meteorites we’ve already had for some time. The Shergotty meteorite, which crashed in Bihar, India in 1865, and the Queen Alexandria Range 94201 meteorite, which landed in Antarctica and was discovered in 1994, were both ejected from Mars roughly 2.5 million years ago. Because they formed due to volcanic activity, when molten Martian mantle was brought to the surface and crystallized, they can tell us a great deal about the planet’s insides.
“We analyzed two meteorites that had very different processing histories,” Hauri said. “One had undergone considerable mixing with other elements during its formation, while the other had not.” For both of the meteorites, the team looked specifically at the amount of water molecules locked inside crystals of the mineral apatite and used this as a proxy for how much water was contained in the original rock on Mars that produced the meteorites. To determine the precise amount of water, they used a technology called secondary ion mass spectrometry, which shoots a focused beam of ions at the sample and measures the amount of ions that bounce off of the surface.
The amount of water in the meteorites suggested that the Martian mantle contains somewhere between 70 and 300 parts per million of water—an amount strikingly similar to Earth’s own mantle. Because both the samples contained roughly the same water content despite their different geological histories on Mars, the researchers believe that the planet incorporated this water long ago, during the early stages of its formation. The paper also provides us with an answer for how underground water may have made its way to the Martian surface: volcanic activity.
Earlier this week, we discussed how solar radiation is among the many problems that face potential human colonization of Mars, but finding a huge underground store of water inside the planet would still go a long way towards making settlement a legitimate possibility. In the long-term, drilling for underground water may be cheaper and easier than, say, trying to melt surface ice, or subsisting off the tiny amount of surface water that we know is present.
Additionally, the finding is getting an entire separate crowd excited: those who are hoping to find fossil or other evidence that Mars once supported life. The fact that water has apparently existed on the planet for such a long time makes the odds of life originating there just a little less scant.
All this from a pair of meteorites that crashed on our planet over a century ago. Just imagine what we might learn during future missions to Mars, such as NASA’s unmanned space laboratory, Curiosity, which will land on Mars on August 5th.
Still, it won’t be easy. Watch this NASA video to learn about the riskiest part of the whole mission—the seven minutes between when the rover hits the top of the Martian atmosphere and when it touches down.