China’s Mars rover breakthrough: Water persisted on Red Planet much longer than thought

Brian Cox explores the origins of life on other planets

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Zhurong landed in a large plain in Mars’ northern hemisphere called Utopia Planitia on May 15, 2021 where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. Scientists have long believed that Mars was wet around 3 billion years ago, during the planet’s Hesperian period, then lost much of its water.

But the new study presents evidence of water activity from just 700 million years ago, well into the current Amazonian period, posing a new puzzle to crack about the Red Planet and its history.

The new study is based on data from China’s Zhurong rover, which is part of the Tianwen-1 mission and touched down on the surface of Mars in May 2021.

In particular, the scientists used data the rover gathered during its first 92 Martian days, or sols, at its landing site in Utopia Planitia.

Yang Liu, a researcher at the National Space Science Center (NSSC) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and colleagues analysed data from three different instruments on Zhurong: the laser-induced breakdown spectrometer (MarSCoDe), the telescopic microimaging camera and the short-wave infrared spectrometer.

Mr Liu said: “The most significant and novel thing is that we found hydrated minerals at the landing site which stands on the young Amazonian terrain, and these hydrated minerals are (indicators) for the water activities such as (groundwater) activities.”

The researchers analysed the Zhurong rover’s data about the sediments and minerals found in the basin as well as the analysis performed by several of the rover’s instruments of its surroundings.

They found hydrated silica and sulphates, similar to hydrated minerals discovered by other missions studying different regions of the red planet.

Data returned from the rover’s initial survey of the basin suggests that the Utopia Planitia basin contained water during a time when many scientists believed Mars to be dry and cold.

A study detailing the findings published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

According to the reports, the rover’s primary mission, which lasted for three months, was to search for signs of ancient life.

It has investigated the minerals, environment and distribution of water and ice in the plain, which is all part of the largest impact basin in the Martian northern lowlands.

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The rover continues to explore its landing site and send information back to the Tianwen-1 orbiter circling the planet.

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