Water at Mars' South Pole Is "Just a Mirage", Study Says
A proverbial "bucket of cold water" was poured on those who expected to have found water on Mars, according to a paper published today (24) in the journal Geophysical Research Letters: according to its authors, the possible presence of the life-giving liquid at the south pole of the red planet is “probably a mirage”.
The situation seeks to answer a question posed in 2018, when astronomers observed the frozen region of the south pole and saw bright radar reflections beneath the solid layer. Since then, several studies have sought to confirm what could be the first sign of liquid water in the present time of Mars.
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But, as the expression goes, “it wasn’t meant to be”: according to Cyril Grima, a planetary scientist based at the University of Texas and co-author of the study, what we likely saw in 2018 was a set of volcanic rocks.
“For water to sustain itself at a level so close to the surface, we would need a very salty environment and a locally generated heat source, but that doesn't address what we know from that region,” Grima said.
Using models that expand the ice sheet over a larger terrain – specifically, an icy cover across the red planet – Grima saw the same bright reflections – including in volcanic zones. This served as confirmation for the study author to deny the possibility of liquid water current at the south pole of Mars.
The same behavior can be observed on Earth, given the right context: rivers of lava that are rich in iron can produce rocks that cause similar reflections. On Mars, these reflective glows most likely came from mineral deposits in ancient river channels, which have now dried up.
However, that doesn't rule out the possibility that water was a factor in the discovery: according to New York University Mars geophysicist Isaac Smith, the reflections discovered in 2018 may have come from a type of clay that derives from when a rock faces water and undergoes erosion process. This also happens here on Earth.
“I think the beauty of Grima's discovery is that it overturns the idea that there might be liquid water at the south pole of Mars today, but it also gives us very exact locations to look for evidence of ancient lakes and dry rivers, testing hypotheses. about the most widespread drought in the climate of Mars over billions of years," said Smith, who was not involved with the new study.
“Science is not foolproof on the first try,” Smith said. "This is especially true when looking at places no one has gone before, and relying on instruments that analyze everything remotely."
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