Mars' 'missing' water is buried beneath surface: Study

A new study funded by Nasa proposes that the water is trapped within minerals in the crust.
A new study funded by Nasa proposes that the water is trapped within minerals in the crust.PHOTO: REUTERS/NASA

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Billions of years ago, Mars was home to lakes and oceans - but where all the water went to transform the planet into the desolate rock we know today has been something of a mystery.

Most of it was thought to have been lost to space, but a new study funded by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) proposes that the water did not go anywhere but is trapped within minerals in the crust.

"We're saying that the crust forms what we call hydrated minerals, so minerals that actually have water in their crystal structure," Ms Eva Scheller, the lead author of the new paper published in Science journal, told AFP.

In fact, Ms Scheller's model suggests anywhere between 30 per cent and 99 per cent of the initial water remains trapped inside these minerals.

Early Mars was thought to have enough water to cover the whole planet in roughly 100m to 1,500m of ocean.

Because the planet lost its magnetic field early in its history, its atmosphere was progressively stripped away, and it was assumed this was how it lost its water.

But the authors of the new study believe that while some of the water did disappear, the majority remained.

Using observations made by Mars rovers as well as of meteorites from the planet, the team focused on hydrogen, a key component of water.

There are different kinds of hydrogen atoms. Most have just one proton in their nucleus, but a tiny fraction, about 0.02 per cent, have both a proton and a neutron, making them heavier. These are known as deuterium, or "heavy" hydrogen.

Because the lighter kind escapes the planet's atmosphere at a faster rate, the loss of most of the water to space would leave relatively more deuterium behind.

But given how much water the planet is believed to have started with, and the current rate of hydrogen escape observed by spacecraft, the current deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio cannot be explained by atmospheric loss alone.

Permanent loss

The study's authors instead say there was a combination of two mechanisms: the trapping of water in minerals in the planet's crust as well as the loss of water to the atmosphere.

"Any time that you have a rock and it's interacting with water, there's a series of very complex reactions that form a hydrated mineral," said Ms Scheller.

This process, called "chemical weathering", also takes place on earth - for example, in clay that is also found on Mars.

But on our planet volcanoes recycle the water back into the atmosphere. Mars, however, does not have tectonic plates, making the changes permanent.

According to the team's simulations, the planet lost most of its water between 3.7 billion and four billion years ago, which means, Ms  Scheller said, that "Mars was pretty much like we see how it is today for the past three billion years".

She added that she was excited about what Nasa's Perseverance rover, which landed last month for a multi-year science mission on the planet, might be able to contribute to the area of research.

"The Perseverance rover is actually going to investigate exactly these processes and reactions that cause the sequestration of water in the crust," Ms Scheller said.

The team's model contains multiple scenarios, which they compare with new data acquired by the rover.

"We can start to say, 'These parts of the model aren't working right and these parts are' and that's going to help us get closer and closer and closer to the answer," said Ms Scheller.