(CNN) – Mars has its own version of the Grand Canyon, and scientists found this dramatic feature to be home to “large amounts of water” after it was discovered by an orbiter orbiting the Red Planet, according to the European Space Agency.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was launched in 2016 as a joint mission between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, and discovered water in Valles Marineris on Mars. This canyon system is 10 times longer, 5 times deeper, and 20 times wider than the Grand Canyon.
The water lies below the surface of the valley system and was detected by the orbiter’s FREND instrument, or the Micro-Resolution Neutron Detector. This instrument is capable of mapping hydrogen in the upper meter of Martian soil.
Most of the water on Mars is found in the planet’s polar regions and remains frozen like ice water. Valles Marineris is located south of the equator planet, where temperatures are generally not cold enough for water ice to survive.
Observations were collected by the orbiter between May 2018 and February 2021. Previously, other orbiters have searched for water just below the surface of Mars and have detected small amounts under the Martian dust. A detailed study of the results was published Wednesday in the journal Icarus.
“Using (Trace Gas Orbiter), we can look down a meter below this layer of dust and see what’s really going on under the surface of Mars, and most importantly, identify water-rich ‘oases’ that can’t be detected using this layer of dust,” said study author Igor Mitrofanov, lead researcher. At the FREND Neutron Telescope, in a statement.
FREND has revealed a region with an unusually high amount of hydrogen in the massive Valles Marineris Valley system: assuming that the hydrogen we see is bound to water molecules, it appears that up to 40% of the near-surface material in this region is water.”
To put that into perspective, this region is roughly the size of the Netherlands. It overlaps with the Candor Chaos, a network of valleys within the valley system.
The FREND instrument is looking for neutrons to map the hydrogen content in Martian soil. “We can infer how much water is in the soil by looking at the neutrons it emits,” study co-author Alexei Malakov, chief scientist at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.
This is because “neutrons are produced when high-energy particles known as ‘galactic cosmic rays’ collide with Mars; drier soil emits more neutrons than wetter ones,” he explained in the same statement.
“We found that a central part of Valles Marineris was filled with water, in much larger quantities than we expected. This is very similar to permafrost regions on Earth, where water ice persists permanently under dry soil due to low temperatures. It is constant.”
Malakhov said the instrument’s unique monitoring capabilities allowed the team to discover previously hidden water. This can be ice water or water bound to minerals in the soil. But scientists believe that the presence of ice is more likely because the minerals in this place contain little water.
There are higher temperatures near the equator on Mars, so researchers believe there must be a special set of conditions that allow water to survive and renew itself.
“This result is an amazing first step, but we need more observations to know for sure what kind of water we’re dealing with,” study co-author Håkan Svedhem, a former orbital project scientist, said in a statement.
“The discovery demonstrates the unparalleled capabilities of TGO instruments to allow us to ‘see’ beneath the surface of Mars, and reveals a large, shallow and easily exploitable water reservoir in this region of Mars.”
Future missions to Mars will land at low latitudes. This discovery in Valles Marineris highlights the feature as an interesting site for potential human exploration for years to come, especially since this water is more easily accessible than other previously discovered groundwater sources.
“Knowing more about how and where water is on Mars today is essential to understanding what happened to the waters that were once abundant on Mars, and helps us search for habitable environments, potential signs of past life, and organic matter early Martian days,” said Colin Wilson, ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist, in a statement.
In 2022, a Rover Europe Rosalind Franklin Russia’s surface platform, Kazachok, will launch and is expected to land on Mars in 2023. The rover will drill beneath the surface of Mars in search of organic materials that could reveal whether Mars harbors life at all. The rover will explore the Oxia Planum, a site of ancient exposed boulders rich in mud and previously exposed to water.
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