The Global Dust Storm that Ended Opportunity Helped Teach us how Mars Lost its Water

Mars in 2001. On the left, no global dust storm. On the right, global dust storm. Image Credit: By Jim Secosky picked out this NASA image NASA/JPL/MSSS - https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/figures/PIA03170_fig1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65809875

The enduring, and maybe endearing, mystery around Mars is what happened to its water? We can say with near-certainty now, thanks to the squad of Mars rovers and orbiters, that Mars was once much wetter. In fact that planet may have had an ocean that covered a third of the surface. But what happened to it all?

As it turns out, the global dust storms that envelop Mars, and in particular the most recent one that felled the Opportunity rover, may offer an explanation.

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Curiosity has Finally Sampled a Clay-Rich Region on Mars

A mast-cam mosaic image of the so-called "clay-bearing unit". After almost seven years on Mars, MSL Curiosity has finally been able to drill into the clay-rich region. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It’s hard to believe that MSL Curiosity has been on Mars for almost seven years. But it has, and during that time, the rover has explored Gale Crater and Mt. Sharp, the central peak inside the crater. And while it has used its drill multiple times to take rock samples, this is the first sample it’s gathered from the so-called ‘clay unit.’

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Rivers on Mars Flowed for More Than a Billion Years

A photo of a preserved river channel on Mars. The color is overlaid to show elevation, with blue being low and yellow being high elevation. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona/UChicago

The ancient climate of Mars is a mystery to scientists. Even with all we’ve learned about Mars, it’s still difficult to explain how lakes and rivers existed. A new study shows that Martian rivers were swollen with runoff and that they flowed far later into the planet’s history than previously thought.

The question is, how did the Martian climate create these conditions?

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Signs that Ancient Rivers Flowed Across the Surface of Mars, Billions of Years Ago

A topographic image of an area of anceint riverbeds on Mars. Created with data from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on the Mars Express Orbiter. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/ESA_Multimedia/Copyright_Notice_Images

Billions of years ago, Mars was likely a much warmer and wetter place than the cold, dry, barren world we see today. Whether there was life there or not remains an open question. But there’s a massive, growing wall of evidence showing that Mars may have had the necessary conditions for life in the past, including at least one system of river valley networks.

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Astronauts Could Use the ScanMars Device to Search for Water on Mars

Analogue astronauts have tested a ground-penetrating radar named ScanMars at a Mar-like area in Oman. Image: OEWF – Austrian Space Forum

There’s solid evidence for the existence of water on Mars, at least in frozen form at the planet’s poles. And a more recent study confirms the existence of liquid water at the south pole. But visitors to Mars will need to know the exact location of usable water deposits at other Martian locations. A ground-penetrating radar called ScanMars may be up to the task.

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