Once thought impossible to exist, water frost found atop Mars’ Tharsis region volcanoes could come in handy for future human exploration missions, new research suggests.

Key takeaways

  • Water Frost Discovery: Scientists found a thin layer of water frost on Mars’ equatorial volcanoes, previously thought impossible.
  • Significant Water Reserves: In colder months, the frost could hold up to 150,000 tons of water, equivalent to 60 Olympic swimming pools.
  • Daily Frost Cycle: The frost forms every night and evaporates in the morning, influenced by Martian microclimates.
  • Historical Climate Insights: The frost might indicate an ancient Martian climate cycle with precipitation and possible snowfall on the volcanoes.
  • Future Exploration Impact: This discovery could be crucial for future human missions, providing a potential water source and offering new research avenues on Martian environments and ancient life.

For the first time, water frost has been seen atop Mars’ massive equatorial volcanoes, contradicting earlier notions that water could not exist there.

Scientists discovered a hair-thin layer of frost on the tops of the volcanoes in the Tharsis area of the Red Planet – the solar system’s tallest mountains, towering up to three times the height of Mount Everest. In colder months, the frost might contain up to 150,000 tons of water, which is comparable to 60 Olympic swimming pools.

According to lead study author Adomas Valantinas, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, “we thought it was improbable for frost to form around Mars’ equator, as the mix of sunshine and thin atmosphere keeps temperatures during the day relatively high at both the surface and mountaintop — unlike what we see on Earth, where you might expect to see frosty peaks.”

The scientists found that every night, the ice forms along the mountaintops and then evaporates when the morning light heats things up. The discovery could be essential for simulating the presence of water on Mars, which might support upcoming missions involving human exploration. The journal Nature Geoscience published the researchers’ results.

The European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which took high-resolution color photos in the early morning, was the first to see the frost. The researchers verified the presence of the frost, an ethereal blue patina formed in distinct Martian microclimates by chilly air drifting up to the summits, after examining 30,000 photos taken by the mission.

“What we’re seeing may be a remnant of an ancient climate cycle on modern Mars, where you had precipitation and maybe even snowfall on these volcanoes in the past,” Valantinas stated.

Now that the frost’s presence has been established, Valantinas will carry out more research on the Martian environment, paying special attention to old hydrothermal pools that could have been home to microbiological life. Samples from these vents may eventually be returned to Earth by NASA’s projected Sample Return Mission for analysis.

The Perseverance rover has been studying Jezero crater since 2021, and it may have already gathered samples of Mars’ dust or possibly proof of prehistoric life. NASA had originally scheduled a retrieval mission to launch in 2026, however budgetary constraints have caused this timeframe to be pushed back until 2040. To expedite the mission timeframe, commercial businesses are presently being invited to submit ideas to NASA.

“This notion of a second genesis, of life beyond Earth, has always fascinated me,” stated Valantinas.

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