Mars. The Red planet. Our Sister planet. It’s the one in our Solar system that enjoys the most prominent place in Ancient Mythology and Astrology across many cultures. Humanity seems to have a centuries-old romance with two celestial bodies; Our Moon and Mars. This fascination engulfs a large number of Scientists & Astronomers as well! It’s the reason that astronomers have closely set their sights on Mars with the advent of modern telescopes. Man did visit the Moon, but since we stopped visiting it, the next stop for space travel was logically set to be Mars.
With advancements in Robotics and Artificial intelligence, the ultimate application of this technology was in Space. Over the years, many orbiter spacecraft and Landers equipped with exploring rovers have been successfully sent to explore Mars. Interestingly, the motivation to explore Mars has always been attached to its past. Was it once habitable? What led to it becoming a barren red planet? Can it be transformed/ terraformed into a habitable planet for humanity? These are the pivotal questions whose answers are being searched today with the latest space technology.
Water on Mars!
The answer to render Mars as livable, the confirmation of the presence of forms of Water on Mars, came as a huge advancement. Early telescopic observers correctly assumed that the white polar caps and clouds were indications of water’s presence. These observations, coupled with the fact that Mars has a 24-hour day, led astronomer William Herschel to declare in 1784 that Mars probably offered its inhabitants a livable environment. It is confirmed through the latest studies that Mars lost its atmosphere and water relatively quickly. Within a short period of time, geologically speaking, all that water disappeared, aided by dust storms. Presently, there is water ice on the poles of Mars (on the surface & underground) and tiny amounts of vapors in the Martian atmosphere.
Let’s have a look at the forms of Water that have been confirmed to be present on Mars:
Water ice below the Martian surface
In 2018, researchers led by USGS planetary geologist Colin Dundas presented detailed observations of eight Martian regions with the help of HiRISE, a powerful camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. They found several locations where erosion had uncovered large, steep cross-sections of underlying ice. It’s not just the volume of water they found (it’s no mystery that Mars harbors a lot of ice in these particular regions); it’s how mineable it promises to be. The deposits begin at depths as shallow as one meter and extend upwards of 100 meters into the planet. The biggest problem to tap this ice is that these locations are present between 55 and 60 degrees north or south of the equator, where temperatures can drop extremely low. Most Mars missions restrict their landing sites to within 30 degrees of the equator (to remain warm!), as would future crewed missions to the planet’s surface. So we have to wait for a mission planned to land near these sites having underground ice. Erosion on Mars has uncovered large, steep cross-sections of clean, subterranean ice. The following false-color image captured by NASA’s HiRISE camera shows one of the eight discovered stripes that appear dark blue against the Martian terrain.
Water ice on the Martian surface
NASA has big plans for returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024, a stepping stone on the path to sending humans to Mars. But where should the first people on the Red Planet land?
A new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters will help by providing a map of water ice believed to be as little as an inch (2.5 centimeters) below the surface. Water ice will be a crucial consideration for any potential landing site. With little room to spare aboard a spacecraft, any human missions to Mars will have to harvest what’s already available for drinking water and making rocket fuel.
In 2018, ESA’s Mars Express took a set of images that showed a large ice-filled crater! The image developed after stitching together five photographs taken by the Mars Express spacecraft is a spectacular shot of the Korolev Crater, a dish-shaped basin on the broad plain that surrounds the Martian north pole.
Kirsten Siebach, a planetary geologist at Rice University in Houston, told NBC News: “There used to be liquid water in rivers and lakes on Mars, but it largely either froze as the atmosphere dissipated or was lost to space about 3 billion years ago,” Siebach said. “Ice still exists on Mars near the poles, and the Martian atmosphere has a tiny amount of water vapor.”
Mars has seasons just as Earth does, but the ice never melts because of the location of the crater and its topography.
Water vapors in the Martian atmosphere
In 2008, ESA’s scientists discovered the presence of water vapors in the Martian atmosphere. This was based on the data acquired by the “Mars Express” orbiter, which carried three instruments, PFS, SPICAM, and OMEGA. These allowed planetary scientists to study the water cycle of Mars in unprecedented detail.
In 2020, Scientists using an instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or “MAVEN” spacecraft, discovered that water vapor near the surface of the Red Planet is lifted high into the atmosphere. The new study’s title is “Hydrogen escape from Mars is driven by seasonal and dust storm transport of water.” The lead author is Shane Stone, a former laboratory chemist who is now a Doctoral student at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Their paper is published in the journal Science. To make their discovery, Stone and his colleagues relied on data from MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS), which was developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland. The mass spectrometer inhales air and separates the ions that comprise it by their mass, which is how scientists identify them.
“We were all surprised to find water so high in the atmosphere,” said Stone, “The measurements we used could have only come from MAVEN as it soars through the atmosphere of Mars, high above the planet’s surface.
Stone and his team tracked the abundance of water ions high over Mars for more than two Martian years. In doing so, they determined that the amount of water vapor near the top of the atmosphere at about 93 miles, or 150 kilometers, above the surface, is highest during summer in the southern hemisphere. During this time, the planet is closest to the Sun and thus warmer, and dust storms are more likely to happen.
The warm summer temperatures and strong winds associated with dust storms help water vapor reach the uppermost parts of the atmosphere, where it can easily be broken into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen and oxygen then escape to space. Previously, scientists thought that water vapor was trapped close to the Martian surface like it is on Earth.
“Everything that makes it up to the higher part of the atmosphere is destroyed, on Mars or Earth,” Stone said, “because this is the part of the atmosphere that is exposed to the full force of the Sun.”
This phenomenon was also confirmed recently, along with the fact that some of it is vaporizing, in the form of hydrogen leaking from the atmosphere, according to the new research co-authored in the journal Science Advances by two scientists at Britain’s Open University.
They detected the vapor by analyzing light passing through the Martian atmosphere using an instrument called the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery.
The device is traveling aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s ROSCOSMOS.
Future of Possibilities!
Scientists are very optimistic about new discoveries as we are witnessing new spacecraft entering the Martian orbit. Namely, UAE’s HOPE Mars mission, the Chinese Tianwen-1 mission, and NASA’s Perseverance rover. Especially, the mission profile of the Perseverance rover is very promising. It has landed and started roving the Jezero Crater, whose fan-shaped delta and rim show it was once a lake that was several hundred feet deep! The latest images are being analyzed by planetary & geological scientists. It is imperative that we are going to discover new exciting facts about the forms of Water on Mars and so much more!
Muhammad Hassan Qazi is a Co-Founder of RaheQamar and an avid Space enthusiast. He is a Post-Graduate in Aerospace Engineering & has researched numerous Space technology projects. Hassan believes Pakistan has the talent and resources to actively contribute to the Global Space Industry. He is working in STEM and striving to promote Space science & tech. in Pakistan