More than a decade and a half ago, the Mars Express mission set out to uncover the secrets of the Martian surface, focusing on the mysterious Medusae Fossae formation (MFF).
This interesting geological feature, initially studied for its extensive deposits, has remained a subject of speculation and curiosity. But today, thanks to new research, the veil on MFF has finally been lifted.
Deep water in the Medusae Fossae Formation on Mars
Thomas Watters, of Smithsonian Institution in the USA and lead author of both the original and recent studies, sheds light on these recent findings.
“We explored the MFF again using more recent data from MARSIS Express Radar“And we found that the sediments are much thicker than we thought: up to 3.7 kilometers thick,” says Watters.
“Excitingly, the radar signals match what we expect to see from ice sheets, and are similar to the signals we see from the polar caps of Mars, which we know are very rich in ice.”
Enough water to fill Earth's Red Sea
The implications of this discovery are profound. The ice within the Medusae Fossae formation, if it melted, could envelop Mars in a layer of water measuring… Depth 1.5 to 2.7 metres.
This represents the largest water reservoir ever discovered in this region of Mars, containing enough water to rival the size of the Red Sea on Earth.
The Medusae Fossae Formation is itself a geological marvel, extending hundreds of kilometers long and rising several kilometres.
It lies at the intersection of the Martian highlands and lowlands, a potential major source of Martian dust and one of the most extensive deposits on the planet.
Previous studies of the formation of Medusae Fossae
Initial observations by Mars Express indicated the icy nature of the Medusae Fossae formation due to its radar transparency and low density.
However, alternative theories have suggested that the formation could be a massive accumulation of wind-blown dust, volcanic ash, or sediment.
Here comes the new radar data! “Given how deep it is, if the MFF were just a giant pile of dust, we would expect it to become compact under its own weight,” says co-author Andrea Cicchetti of Harvard University. National Institute of Astrophysics, Italy.
“This would create something much denser than what we already see with Marses. When we modeled how different ice-free materials would behave, there was nothing that reproduced the properties of MFF – we needed ice.
Rewriting the history of Mars
Current understanding of MFF area It indicates the formation of layers of dust and ice, topped by a protective layer of dry dust or ash, hundreds of meters thick.
Although Mars appears barren now, it shows signs of a water-rich past, including the remains of river channels, ancient ocean floors, and water-carved valleys.
This discovery of large ice near the Martian equator, like that found beneath the surface of the MFF, points to a radically different climate era in the planet's history.
“This latest analysis challenges our understanding of the formation of Medusae Fossae, and raises as many questions as answers,” says Colin Wilson, ESA project scientist for Mars Express and the spacecraft. ESA's ExoMars spacecraft (TGO).
“How long ago did these ice deposits form, and what did Mars look like at that time? If they are confirmed to be water ice, these massive deposits will change our understanding of the history of the climate of Mars. Any reservoir of ancient water would be a great target.” Human or automated exploration“.
Implications for future Mars exploration
For future Mars missions, the discovery of ice in equatorial locations such as the Medusae Fossae Formation is invaluable.
Missions require landing near the equator, far from polar caps or high-latitude glaciers, and water is a critical resource.
However, Wilson warns, “MYF deposits, buried under extensive layers of dust, remain elusive for now. However, each discovery of Martian ice enriches our understanding of the planet's hydrological history and current water distribution.”
Mars Express continues to map water ice deep beneath the surface, while the TGO Mars Orbiter, equipped with the FREND instrument, surveys indicators of near-surface water.
FREND's discovery of a hydrogen-rich region, indicating the presence of water ice, at Valles Marineris on Mars in 2021, and ongoing mapping of shallow-water sediments, complements this understanding.
“Our collective efforts to explore Mars are gradually revealing the secrets of our planetary neighbour, offering glimpses into its past and the potential for future exploration,” Colin Wilson concludes.
Uncover the secrets of Mars
In summary, Mars Express' recent findings on the formation of Medusae Fossae represent a milestone in our understanding of Mars and its climate history.
The discovery of extensive ice deposits, challenging previous concepts and revealing a potential treasure trove of water resources, enriches our knowledge of the Red Planet and changes the prospects for future exploration.
These discoveries bring us closer to unlocking the secrets of Mars, and offer a promising outlook for both scientific discoveries and the prospects for human exploration.
As we continue to explore and analyze, each piece of data adds to the complex mosaic of Mars' past, providing an ever-evolving narrative of this fascinating planetary neighbor.
The history of water on Mars
This study has been conducted before European Space Agency.
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