Is an Ocean of Mars Water Trapped in the Planet’s Crust?

The loss of water on Mars
This visualization primarily based on Viking information nonetheless rings true at this time — Mars has misplaced an ocean’s value of water early on in its historical past. The query is, how?
NASA / Michael Carroll; information supply: C. McKay (NASA Ames)

Nearly two dozen orbiters, landers, and rovers despatched to Mars have proven that the Red Planet was as soon as fairly moist. There’s proof for sufficient previous water to encompass Mars in a world ocean between 100 and 1,500 meters (300 to five,000 ft) deep.

Now Mars is successfully a desert planet — so the place did all that water go?

In the March sixteenth Science, graduate pupil Eva Scheller and advisor Bethany Ehlmann (each at Caltech) use a mannequin of the Martian water cycle (and water loss) to indicate that Mars was arid by about 3 billion years in the past. But opposite to earlier pondering, they argue that almost all of the water was misplaced to not space however to the planet itself, trapped in water-loving minerals in the Martian crust.

Curiosity image of hydrated minerals
Curiosity imaged sediments and skinny veins of hydrated minerals in Gale Crater. The veins seen listed below are millimeters to centimeters thick.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

This occurs on Earth, too: Water interacts with floor rocks to kind clays, hydrated salts, and different minerals. But Earth has plate tectonics, which repeatedly drives items of its crust into the mantle, releasing water to be outgassed in volcanic eruptions. Geologically useless Mars has no such crustal recycling, so as soon as water reacts with rock or salt to kind one other mineral, there’s no straightforward way to reverse the course of.

Yet this water-trapping situation has largely been missed in scientists’ modeling of Martian historical past. A key investigative instrument is isotopic ratios, which open a chemical window on the planet’s early chemistry. Water (H2O) normally accommodates common ol’ hydrogen however can hardly ever comprise a heavier kind referred to as deuterium, which has an additional neutron. Water on Mars has gotten heavier over time; the deuterium-hydrogen ratio in the planet’s skinny environment climbed up 5 to 10 occasions increased from 4 billion years in the past to now.

Previous research trying to know how this ratio has advanced have assumed the water was regularly misplaced to space over the eons. First, ultraviolet gentle from the Sun dissociates water molecules, breaking the hydrogens free, then the hydrogen escapes from the prime of the environment, albeit regularly. Lighter hydrogen is extra prone to escape than deuterium. However, escape hasn’t been in a position to clarify all the water loss. Some scientists have even urged Mars may harbor an enormous however undetected water (or ice) reservoir beneath its floor.

Model of crustal hydration on Mars
Scheller’s staff modeled the evolution of Mars’s water cycle. While some water nonetheless exists in the polar ice caps and underground ice reservoirs, Mars has misplaced most of its water to chemical reactions with rocks in the crust and to space.
Scheller at al. / Science 2021

So Scheller, Ehlmann, and their colleagues got down to construct a mannequin of the Martian water cycle that takes into consideration volcanic outgassing, change with the polar ice caps and different sources of subsurface ice, loss to space, and loss to water-trapping chemistry on the floor. They discovered that in truth most of the lacking water should have been misplaced to the planet’s crust somewhat than to space. These floor interactions clarify the present deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio with out requiring an underground reservoir.

“More than half of Mars’s initial water was sequestered in the crust by 3 billion years ago,” Scheller stated at the 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Testing Scenarios with Perseverance

While the examine highlights the significance of floor chemistry in understanding historic Martian historical past, simply how a lot water bought trapped in crustal rocks  is difficult to pin down as a result of there’s nonetheless rather a lot we don’t learn about the planet’s historical past.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter has measured the present escape fee of hydrogen (and therefore water) from the Martian environment, for instance, however the fee in the distant previous is much less sure. If hydrogen has been wafting into space at the similar low fee for 3 billion years, then as much as 99% of the misplaced water may very well be trapped in minerals. But if world mud storms frequently heated the environment, accelerating hydrogen’s escape to space for transient occasions, then maybe solely 30% of misplaced water is locked away in the crust.

Water loss over the (billions of) years
This diagram reveals the evolution of Mars’s water cycle (and water loss). There was rather a lot of preliminary water, delivered by comets and asteroids, and outgassing throughout volcanic eruptions continued so as to add water to the environment over time. However, a lot of the water was misplaced to chemistry with supplies in the planet’s crust. Some water can also be misplaced as hydrogen atoms escape to space, however it is a much less essential mechanism for water loss.
Scheller et al. / LPSC

“There are so many uncertainties that it’s difficult to come up with a unique scenario,” says Bruce Jakosky (University of Colorado, Boulder), who was not concerned in the examine however serves as MAVEN’s principal investigator.

Jakosky labored with graduate pupil Liza Wernicke in assessing the quantity of water locked into hydrated minerals on and beneath the floor primarily based on information from two orbiters, Mars Odyssey and Mars Express. Their estimates of locked-away water, revealed final week in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, are in line with these of Scheller’s staff. But Jakosky provides that there are nonetheless rather a lot of open questions in going from the quantity of hydrated minerals to understanding the evolution of deuterium abundance.

Geochemist Roger Clark (Planetary Science Institute), who was additionally not concerned in the examine, says, “The model is a good start and indicates other factors that previously were not considered.” He thinks non-crystalline minerals might have performed a job in the course of, too, one thing that may very well be investigated additional in lab research.

The Perseverance rover shall be key to testing and constructing on the mannequin, Ehlmann says, as the rocks in and round Jezero Crater are the oldest ever to be explored by a rover. Perseverance is choosing and packaging up floor samples for eventual return to Earth, and Scheller provides, “measuring those hydrogen isotopes and water content in the lab will allow us to test between the different scenarios presented in the study.”

Life on Mars?

Knowing that Mars has retained a lot of its water, somewhat than dropping it to space, is likely to be seen as a plus for all times on Mars or future human exploration. But since the water has reacted chemically with minerals, some of which can not even be close to the floor, it’s not available for crewed missions. Scheller factors out that we’d must warmth the rocks to 300° to 400°C to launch the water molecules from their crystalline traps, and we’d must warmth a lot of rock to get a usable quantity of water.

While some have urged nuking Mars (together with at Tuesday’s press convention), as Michael Meyer (NASA) put it, “Nuking a planet is usually not a good way to make it more habitable.” And even when water had been launched on the floor, the similar chemical reactions would happen, re-trapping the water in rock inside a whole bunch of years.

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