China’s Mars rover has found evidence that Mars once had water in its warmer regions, the Associated Press reported.
The Zhurong rover’s discovery, announced on Friday, points to the possibility that the planet's dunes recently contained water, supporting conditions where life could have existed.
The rover went into hibernation mode to survive the harsh Martian winter almost a year ago. It has yet to wake up and its solar panels are likely covered in a thick coat of dust making it difficult to turn back on. Zhang Rongqiao, the mission’s chief designer, admitted the possibility that the rover might not be able to operate further.
But before it went to sleep, the robot explorer discovered dunes that were rich in salt. Researchers believe the dunes' crusts hold evidence that morning frost or snow frequently fell in the region several hundred thousand years ago.
While the rover did not directly find evidence of water or ice, Xiaoguang Qin of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, the lead author of the study, told AP that computer simulations and observations by other spacecrafts studying Mars back up the theory that conditions in the warmer regions of Mars could lead to small amounts of water melting from frost or snow.
Martian frost was first observed by NASA in the 1970s on its Viking missions. But it was previously not considered a frequent occurrence that could lead to widespread water.
The rover’s findings indicate that theory needs to be reevaluated, and that water might have existed more widely on Mars in the not so distant past than previously assumed.
"We inferred that these dune surface characteristics were related to the involvement of liquid saline water formed by the subsequent melting of frost/snow falling on the salt-containing dune surfaces," Qin said in a statement.