The aircraft hasn’t moved for months, spurring speculation that something may have gone wrong. On Tuesday, a designer of China’s Mars mission confirmed on state TV that the rover likely had so much dust accumulated on its solar arrays that it was unable to turn on again.
Just because the rover is likely out of service, however, doesn’t mean it can’t still deliver breakthrough discoveries. Case in point: Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have discovered evidence of salt water through analysis of the Martian sand dunes of Zhurong.
In a study published Friday in scientific advances, images and chemical data collected by the rover show clues that melting pockets of water ice may have formed cracks and erosion on the sand dunes. Of course, where there’s water, there’s also the potential for life, so the discovery could point the way for future research into signs of life on the Red Planet.
‘Our findings provide clues for designing future exploration strategies for Mars rovers,’ the study authors wrote. In particular, future researchers should pay more attention to “small depressions and encrusted ground surfaces” for evidence of salt water on the Martian landscape.
Water found on Mars could be the first sign of Martian life
The authors added: ‘Since salt water once existed at various latitudes on the surface of Mars, priority should be given to salt-tolerant microbes in future missions to search for existing life on Mars.’
The findings add credence to the idea that Mars had water on it relatively recently. While most scientists agree that the Red Planet was actually quite wet and covered in oceans that were likely teeming with life, this all happened billions of years ago. It has since dried up, giving way to the rocky, sandy planet that Mars is today.
However, measurements made by Zhurong indicate that there may have been Some water on Mars up to 400,000 years ago. In the span of planetary history, it’s the blink of an eye. For some perspective, early humans hunted grazing animals in Africa at this time.
(a) Topographical contour map of the surroundings where the track is located. The coordinate system is the local Cartesian coordinate east-north-up (ENU) and the origin is that of the rover’s coordinate system. The Digital Orthophoto Map (DOM) background photo was taken by NaTeCam. (b) MSCam bird’s eye view showing a streak-like track and likely waterlogged fragmented soil block. (c) Enlarged photo showing polygonal cracks and bright polygonal ridges. (d) Enlarged photo showing the circular region with the streak-like trace as part. (e) NaTeCam 3D image of an interdune trough between two dark longitudinal dunes. (f) A cross section of the dune along the outline of the white dashed line in (e).
The experiments conducted by the Chinese team also revealed that the crust and ridges of the sand dunes were likely the result of thawing saltwater from snow or frost. This reveals a potential water-processing system that could still occur on Mars, although much more research is needed to confirm anything conclusive.
If there AND any life form on the Red Planet, the study authors say is likely a very hardy life form capable of living in a salt-rich environment. Any water that may be present on the planet will likely contain a lot of saline, so organisms should be able to survive.
While we’ve likely heard Zhurong’s last word, the data the rover collected during its time on the Red Planet will continue to provide insights into future Martian explorations. Of course, that means we need to find a way to get there, so let’s hope SpaceX gets its spaceship headaches sorted out as soon as possible.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
Get the Daily Beast’s biggest scoops and scandals straight to your inbox. Subscribe now.
Stay informed and get unlimited access to Daily Beast’s unmatched reports. Subscribe now.