Scientists have confirmed the presence of a substantial amount of water hidden underneath the surface in Mars’s version of the Grand Canyon, researchers at the European Space Agency said Wednesday.
It was found via a finely tuned instrument that detects hydrogen, one of water’s two molecules, via neutrons rather than light, the researchers said. The high levels of hydrogen found at Candor Chaos, near the heart of the massive Valles Marineris canyon system on the Red Planet, indicate vast quantities of water, they said.
We found a central part of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water — far more water than we expected, said Alexey Malakhov, a senior scientist at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences who co-authored a paper on the find, in a statement from the ESA.This is very much like Earth’s permafrost regions, where water ice permanently persists under dry soil because of the constant low temperatures.
The new research enabled scientists to look deeper than they have in the past, getting below the surface dust, which reveals just small amounts of water, according to Space.com. It helped them find “water-rich ‘oases’ that couldn’t be detected with previous instruments,” said another co-author, Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
This potentially water-rich area is about the size of the Netherlands, the ESA said.
Assuming the hydrogen we see is bound into water molecules, as much as 40% of the near-surface material in this region appears to be water, Mitrofanov said in the statement.
It’s unclear how the water is stored, as CNET pointed out. It could be in ice, or it could be embedded into minerals. Anything they learn can help shed light on past conditions.
Knowing more about how and where water exists on present-day Mars is essential to understand what happened to Mars’ once-abundant water, and helps our search for habitable environments, possible signs of past life, and organic materials from Mars’ earliest days.