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Mars' water went underground
Posted: 29 October 2010

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NASA’s troubled Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has found evidence that liquid water once seeped underground from the surface, despite the rover still being stuck in a spot of bother.

Artwork depicting the Spirit rover. Image: NASA/JPL–Caltech.

The mystery of where Mars’ water went has been one of the most enduring mysteries of the red planet. Evidence abounds that billions of years ago Mars may have had oceans, and during its great variations in tilt ice may have extended down to the tropics. Evidence has been found, first by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe, and then by NASA’s Phoenix lander and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, of the existence of water-ice below the surface. Now Spirit has seen evidence that the water moved underground by flowing through the Martian dirt, probably from the melting of frost or snow.

The degree by which Mars’ axis can change can be quite substantial. AN graphic by Greg Smye–Rumsby.

Spirit is currently caught in a sand-trap, desperately trying to outlast the Martian winter. As the rover’s wheels churned in the sand, they dug trenches that exposed different layers in the dirt. Upon inspection, these layers corresponded to different minerals. The minerals least likely to dissolve in water, such as silica, hematite and gypsum, are found closer to the surface, whilst minerals of increasing solubility, such as ferric sulphates, are found deeper and deeper.

“The preferential dissolution of ferric sulphates must be a relatively recent and ongoing process since wind has been systematically stripping oil and altering landscapes in the region Spirit has been examining,” says the rover’s Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St Louis, USA.

‘Relatively recently’ means one of the episodes of climate change over the last few hundred thousand years caused by the change in the tilt of Mars’ spin-axis. Without a large moon to stabilise it, the red planet undergoes large wobbles in tilt. Mars’ current tilt is 25 degrees, but could potentially tip over as much as 82 degrees (see the November 2010 issue of Astronomy Now for more on planets with high obliquity). During one of Mars’ warmer phases, ice, snow or frost may have gradually melted, with the resulting runoff soaking the dirt.

Over the past ten million years Mars has experienced wide fluctuations in tilt, leading to climate change and the freezing and melting of water. Mars’ current tilt is 25 degrees. AN graphic by Greg Smye–Rumsby.

Spirit is currently hibernating to conserve precious power as its dust encrusted solar panels, tilted away from the low winter sun, struggle to gather enough solar energy. “All rover systems are turned off, including the radio and survival heaters,” says the rover’s Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “All available solar array energy goes into charging the batteries and keeping the mission clock running.” Without its heaters Spirit is currently experiencing temperatures far colder than it has ever done before, and it remains to be seen if the little rover will ever wake up again. If it does, it will find itself a stationary science platform, permanently stuck in the sand with two broken wheels. However, prior to hibernation but its spinning wheels also dug trenches behind it that are currently unexamined. If Spirit rises from its slumber, it will be presented with these new trenches for new investigation.

To follow the exploits of the Mars Exploration Rovers, visit their website here, and read our previous story relating to Spirit’s plight here.

Ice exposed by a fresh crater, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. Image: NASA/JPL–Caltech/University of Arizona.

The Planets
From tiny Mercury to distant Neptune and Pluto, The Planets profiles each of the Solar System's members in depth, featuring the latest imagery from space missions. The tallest mountains, the deepest canyons, the strongest winds, raging atmospheric storms, terrain studded with craters and vast worlds of ice are just some of the sights you'll see on this 100-page tour of the planets.

Hubble Reborn
Hubble Reborn takes the reader on a journey through the Universe with spectacular full-colour pictures of galaxies, nebulae, planets and stars as seen through Hubble's eyes, along the way telling the dramatic story of the space telescope, including interviews with key scientists and astronauts.

3D Universe
Witness the most awesome sights of the Universe as they were meant to be seen in this 100-page extravaganza of planets, galaxies and star-scapes, all in 3D!


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