Are Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) carrying out more investigation into this discovery?
The Russian-led instrument which made this discovery continues to map the rest of the planet (Mars) and has already seen signs of other locations near the equator which appear to exhibit high abundances of hydrogen (indicative of water ice) – each of these areas will be studied closely to understand its history.
Furthermore, Russia and ESA are collaborating to send a rover to Mars launching in 2022. This will be equipped with a drill capable of drilling up to two m below the surface. Although it will not be landing in Valles Marineris, its investigations will advance our understanding of subsurface processes in general.
The discovery of water in the equatorial region of Mars is a major breakthrough. What next?
ESA’s fleet of spacecraft will continue to search for water in all of its forms on Mars: in surface ice, in buried ice, in water vapour; this includes two orbiters at Mars now, as well as a rover and stationary lander launching next year (in collaboration with Russia).
Later this decade, an International Mars Ice Mapper mission will be launched, whose main scientific purpose will be to map near-surface underground ice.
Also, ESA and NASA are working jointly on a Mars Sample Return mission, which will bring back rock samples from the surface of Mars; that will provide yet more insights into the history of Mars and its habitability.
Does this find suggest that at one time the Valles Marineris region of Mars could perhaps have been habitable?
We know that, at some point in the past, Mars must have been warmer and wetter than it is today. However, it is still not clear how warm these conditions were, or how long they lasted. As to the new findings, we don’t know whether Valles Marineris amassed this large abundance of near-surface water in an epoch of abundant liquid water, or whether some glacial or other process was behind it. So there’s a lot left to research before we can reach conclusions about habitability.
While water is known to exist in the cold polar region of Mars, this is the first time it was found hidden close to the equator. How did this happen and its significance?
The discovery was made using a neutron mapper on an orbiter. This type of instrument has been carried on a previous Mars orbiter, but the new instrument has a much higher spatial resolution allowing it to pick out small regions in which unusual hydrogen abundances can be found. These instruments do not directly detect water, but they detect hydrogen atoms. What we know about Martian chemistry shows that most of the hydrogen will be found in water ice.
When was the discovery made and why was it announced now.
The scientists behind this discovery have been accumulating data continuously since the beginning of TGO science observations in mid 2018. By 2020 they had accumulated sufficient data to start analysing their findings for particular regions of the planet. Then they carefully prepared a paper for publication, following a scientific peer review. The paper has just been published, which is why it is being announced now!
What was the immediate reaction of the team when the discovery was made?
They are delighted, having worked on this for so many years.
On a lighter note—to whom does this water belong—Russia or Europe!
It belongs to Mars, not to any earthlings!
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