Science

Was Mars A ‘Water World?’ See The New Images Of An Ancient Reservoir As Martian Water Map Is Revealed

Even if you’re the kind of space fan that keeps an eye on the latest raw images coming back from NASA’s Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter it’s doubtful that you see many images of the red planet from orbit.

The orbit of Mars is comprehensively covered by the space agencies of Earth. There are actually eight active space probes now orbiting Mars, each sending back images of it as required, though the public’s enthusiasm for seeing the dusty redness of Mars has waned.

Or has it? The European Space Agency (ESA) recently published some brand new images of Mars from above taken by its Mars Express probe. They reveal how and where water—which used to exist there—carved geological features. They’re incredible.

The images show Holden Basin, a 140 kilometer-wide crater in the planet’s southern highlands. A “true color” image that apes what would be seen by the human eye, it shows a series of channels and sinks that may have once drained up to 9% of the Martian surface.

Thought to have once been a water-filled reservoir, Holden Basin is an important area in the search for ancient life on Mars and is sure to one day be visited by a rover—or possibly even by a crewed mission. The image above shows shows a crater and the walls of the basin sloping towards it.

This image, above, is of the northeast of the Holden Basin and it shows where water would have flowed. The bumps you can see are evidence that at some point in Mars’ history some water-ice under the surface of Mars melted.

The new images come as ESA publishes the first detailed global maps of hydrated mineral deposits on Mars. Created using data from ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the map pinpoints clays and salts—telltale evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface and chemically altered its rocks.

Scientists think that clays were created on Mars during an early wet period while the salts—still visible today—are the product of the water drying-up.

It’s thought that clays could have played a role in the origin of life on Earth by creating a “reaction center” for organic molecules.

“The evolution from lots of water to no water is not as clear cut as we thought—the water didn’t just stop overnight,” said John Carter at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS) and Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM), Université Paris-Saclay and Aix Marseille Université, France. “We see a huge diversity of geological contexts, so that no one process or simple timeline can explain the evolution of the mineralogy of Mars.”

The maps also show that if you exclude life processes on Earth, Mars exhibits a diversity of mineralogy in geological settings just as Earth does, according to Carter.

The same researchers also created a mineral map of Jezero crater, where NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently exploring. The map mostly pinpoints clays and carbonate salts.

ESA’s Mars Express satellite has been at Mars since 2003. Only NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbit from 2001 has been there longer. The agency’s first interplanetary mission, it was a two-parter that saw a Beagle 2 lander descend to the Martian surface map its minerals and measure its permafrost using radar. Sadly the lander’s solar panels didn’t deploy correctly.

The Mars Express orbiter long ago detected water-ice in the planet’s south polar ice cap and in 2020 found three lakes beneath it.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter got to Mars in 2006 to study the red planet’s geology and climate.

Mars will go into its bi-annual close “opposition” on December 8, 2022 when, as seen from Earth, Mars will look at its biggest, brightest and best since 2020.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.


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