Chinese Mars rover finds signs of recent water activity on planet

There might have been more water on Mars than previously anticipated, according to new data from scientists monitoring China's Zhurong rover on the planet.

The discovery of certain cracks and surface designs on small Martian sand dunes formed in Mars' Utopia Planitia in May 2021 gives the implication that the planet may have had water possibly between 1.4 million years to 400,000 years ago, according to a recently published report by a Beijing-based team in the journal, Science Advances.

"This means a more recent time in Martian history," Xiaoguang Qin, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and a co-author of the report, told Researchers from the National Astronomical Observatories of CAS and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of CAS were also involved in the study.

This study revealed the existence of liquid water indirectly by showing that there are some geological features that can be produced specifically in the presence of liquid water, thus indicating its availability, Manasvi Lingam, an assistant professor of astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology who wasn't involved in the new report, told USA TODAY in an email Monday.

The report said that the rover did not directly detect any water in the form of substances like frost or ice. But Qin said computer simulations and observations by other spacecraft on Mars show that certain conditions could be suitable for water to appear.

"We think it could be a small amount ..." Qin told the Associated Press. "No more than a film of water on the surface."

How did the dunes on Mars form?

The dunes likely formed from tiny pockets of water from thawing frost or snow, mixed in with salt, the Chinese scientists reported. The salts in dunes cause frost and snow to melt at low temperatures to form salty liquid water. These small cracks and surfaces created depressions and ridges, the scientists added.

"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 when cooling occurs," Qin said.

The wind was ruled out as a cause, as well as frost made of carbon dioxide, which contains most of Mars’ atmosphere.

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Does the detection of water mean there possibly was life on Mars?

The dunes Zhurong explored are near its landing site on Mars' northern hemisphere. The six-wheeled Zhurong rover, which was named after a fire god in Chinese mythology, was launched in 2020 and arrived on Mars in 2021. The rover spent a year traveling around the planet before going into hibernation last May.

China's finding on Mars also shows possibly new fertile areas in the warmer regions where conditions might be suitable enough for life to exist on the planet.

"This is important for understanding the evolutionary history of the Martian climate, looking for a habitable environment, and providing key clues for the future search for life," Qin told

Of course, this leads to an inevitable question: Could there have been life on Mars?

The research suggests the relatively recent presence of liquid water on Mars, and also that its atmosphere may have been more humid at that moment than today, Lingham said.

"However, neither of these criteria directly supports the existence of life on Mars (because life requires many other conditions aside from water)," Lingham added. "Although they do make the prospects for habitability a little brighter."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China Mars rover finds recent water activity on planet than we thought