Mars: China’s Zhurong rover finds hints landscape was shaped by water

The first reported findings from China’s Mars rover counsel the plain it’s exploring was formed by winds – and maybe additionally by water


7 March 2022

Zhurong rover

China’s first Mars rover Zhurong with the touchdown platform

Xinhua / Alamy

China’s Zhurong Mars rover landed at Utopia Planitia – a big plain within the northern lowlands of the planet – again in May 2021. Now, preliminary knowledge collected by the rover means that the location has been topic to lengthy durations of weathering previously by wind, and possibly even water.

During Zhurong’s first 60 sols (Mars-days) of operation, it traversed 450.9 metres of flat land plagued by small rocks. At the identical time, the rover collected knowledge to review the planet’s geological construction and floor composition, which included taking soil and dirt samples in addition to capturing photographs with a digital camera known as NaTeCam.

Liang Ding on the Harbin Institute of Technology in China and his colleagues analysed this preliminary knowledge.

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Many of the rocks that have been discovered across the touchdown web site have been coated with etchings and grooves on one aspect, which signifies that they will need to have undergone intense wind erosion from sand. Some of the rocks even have a flaky texture, which usually arises from interactions with water, say the authors.

The rover additionally encountered a number of megaripples on the Martian floor – wind-sculpted options made up of unfastened sediment that span a number of metres.

“The examples Zhurong has visited appear very bright-toned in satellite images taken from orbit, and the team thinks that this is because the megaripples are covered with a layer of very fine dust,” says Matt Balme on the Open University, UK, who wasn’t concerned within the evaluation. “This means these features are probably currently inactive, as any present-day windblown sand would tend to remove the dust.”

Scientists acquired a primary glimpse of Utopia Planitia’s rocks with NASA’s Viking 2 lander in 1976. At that point, they have been broadly interpreted as fragments of basaltic lava, says John Bridges on the University of Leicester, UK.

“However, the landing site rocks here don’t obviously look like basaltic lava terrain that we associate with the crust at Utopia Planitia,” says Bridges. “Zhurong is suggesting a more complicated geological evolution than expected from Viking 2.”

“From Viking 2, the paradigm was that Mars was a big lump of basalt with maybe a few flood channels,” says Bridges. But now the proof from the rover helps a paradigm shift in the direction of a sedimentary Mars, he says.

The soil samples taken on the web site by Zhurong have been discovered to have an analogous composition to these collected by different rovers elsewhere on Mars.

Overall, these preliminary findings counsel that this web site has the potential to offer extra perception into the historical past of the planet’s floor.

“What’s really exciting is that many scientists think that Utopia Planitia may have once hosted an ancient liquid water ocean, billions of years ago,” says Joel Davis on the Natural History Museum in London. “Hopefully, as Zhurong continues to explore, it will be able to help answer this question [of whether there was an ocean] that’s been plaguing scientists for decades.”

Journal reference: Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00905-6

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