Mars has its own version of the Grand Canyon, and scientists have learned this dramatic feature is home to “significant amounts of water” after a discovery made by an orbiter circling the red planet, according to the European Space Agency.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, launched in 2016 as a joint mission between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, detected the water in Valles Marineris on Mars.
This canyon system is 10 times longer, five times deeper and 20 times wider than the Grand Canyon.
The water is located beneath the surface of the canyon system and was detected by the orbiter’s FREND instrument, or Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector. This instrument is able to map hydrogen in the top metre (3.28 feet) of Martian soil.
Most water on Mars is located in the planet’s polar regions and remains frozen as water ice. Valles Marineris is just south of the planet’s equator, where temperatures typically aren’t cold enough for water ice to remain.
The observations were collected by the orbiter between May 2018 to February 2021.
Previously, other orbiters have searched for water just beneath the Martian surface and detected small amounts under Martian dust. A study detailing the findings published Wednesday in the journal Icarus.
“With (the Trace Gas Orbiter) we can look down to one metre below this dusty layer and see what’s really going on below Mars’ surface — and, crucially, locate water-rich ‘oases’ that couldn’t be detected with previous instruments,” said study author Igor Mitrofanov, principal investigator of the FREND neutron telescope, in a statement.
“FREND revealed an area with an unusually large amount of hydrogen in the colossal Valles Marineris canyon system: assuming the hydrogen we see is bound into water molecules, as much as 40% of the near-surface material in this region appears to be water.”
To put that into perspective, this area is about the size of the Netherlands. It overlaps with Candor Chaos, a network of valleys within the canyon system.
The FREND instrument searches for neutrons to map hydrogen content in the Martian soil.
“We can deduce how much water is in a soil by looking at the neutrons it emits,” said study coauthor Alexey Malakhov, a senior scientist the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a statement.
That’s because “neutrons are produced when highly energetic particles known as ‘galactic cosmic rays’ strike Mars; drier soils emit more neutrons than wetter ones,” he said in the same statement.
“We found a central part of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water — far more water than we expected. This is very much like Earth’s permafrost regions, where water ice permanently persists under dry soil because of the constant low temperatures.”
The instrument’s unique observational capabilities allowed the team to detect water that remained hidden before, Malakhov said. This could be water ice or water that is attached to minerals within the soil.
But the scientists believe the presence of ice is more likely because the minerals at this location contain little water.
There are higher temperatures near the equator on Mars, so the researchers believe there must be some special blend of conditions that allow the water to remain and be replenished.
“This finding is an amazing first step, but we need more observations to know for sure what form of water we’re dealing with,” said study coauthor Håkan Svedhem, a former project scientist for the orbiter, in a statement.
“The finding demonstrates the unrivalled abilities of TGO’s instruments in enabling us to ‘see’ below Mars’ surface — and reveals a large, not-too-deep, easily exploitable reservoir of water in this region of Mars.”
Future missions to Mars will land at lower latitudes. This discovery in Valles Marineris highlights the feature as an intriguing place for potential human exploration in the years ahead, especially because this water would be much more accessible than other previously discovered subsurface water sources.
“Knowing more about how and where water exists on present-day Mars is essential to understand what happened to Mars’ once-abundant water, and helps our search for habitable environments, possible signs of past life, and organic materials from Mars’ earliest days,” said Colin Wilson, ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist, in a statement.
In 2022, the European Rosalind Franklin rover and Russian surface platform Kazachok will launch and is expected to land on Mars in 2023.
The rover will drill beneath the surface of Mars in search of organic material that could reveal if Mars ever hosted life. The rover will explore Oxia Planum, a site of exposed, ancient clay-rich rocks that were once exposed to water.
Massive Iceberg Released Over 150 Billion Tons of Fresh Water Into Ocean As It Scraped Past South Georgia – SciTechDaily
Scientists monitoring the giant A68A Antarctic iceberg from space reveal that a huge amount of fresh water was released as it melted around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
152 billion tonnes of fresh water – equivalent to 20 x Loch Ness or 61 million Olympic sized swimming pools, entered the seas around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia when the megaberg A68A melted over 3 months in 2020/2021, according to a new study.
In July 2017, the A68A iceberg snapped off the Larsen-C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula and began its epic 3.5 year, 4000 km journey across the Southern Ocean. At 5719 square kilometers in extent – quarter the size of Wales –, it was the biggest iceberg on Earth when it formed and the sixth largest on record. Around Christmas 2020, the berg received widespread attention as it drifted worryingly close to South Georgia, raising concerns it could harm the island’s fragile ecosystem.
Researchers from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used satellite measurements to chart the A68A iceberg’s area and thickness change throughout its life cycle. The authors show that the berg had melted enough as it drifted to avoid damaging the sea floor around South Georgia by running aground. However, a side effect of the melting was the release of a colossal 152 billion tonnes of fresh water in close proximity to the island – a disturbance that could have a profound impact on the island’s marine habitat.
For the first two years of its life, A68A stayed close to Antarctica in the cold waters of the Weddell Sea and experienced little in the way of melting. However, once it began its northwards journey across Drake Passage it traveled through increasingly warm waters and began to melt. Altogether, the iceberg thinned by 67 meters from its initial 235 m thickness, with the rate of melting rising sharply as the berg drifted in the Scotia Sea around South Georgia.
Laura Gerrish, GIS and mapping specialist at BAS and co-author of the study said:
“A68 was an absolutely fascinating iceberg to track all the way from its creation to its end. Frequent measurements allowed us to follow every move and break-up of the berg as it moved slowly northwards through iceberg alley and into the Scotia Sea where it then gained speed and approached the island of South Georgia very closely.”
Thinning and breakage of the A68A iceberg over time. Melt rates increase sharply once the iceberg is drifting in open ocean north of the Antarctic peninsula. Iceberg thickness was derived from satellite altimetry data from Cryosat-2 and ICESat-2. Iceberg shape and size were sourced from Sentinel-1, Sentinel-3 and MODIS satellite data. Credit: Anne Braakmann-Folgmann CPOM
If an iceberg’s keel is too deep it can get stuck on the sea floor. This can be disruptive in several different ways; the scour marks can destroy fauna, and the berg itself can block ocean currents and predator foraging routes. All of these potential outcomes were feared when A68A approached South Georgia. However, this new study reveals that it collided only briefly with the sea floor and broke apart shortly afterward, making it less of a risk in terms of blockage. By the time it reached the shallow waters around South Georgia, the iceberg’s keel had reduced to 141 meters below the ocean surface, shallow enough to avoid the seabed which is around 150 meters deep.
Nevertheless, the ecosystem and wildlife around South Georgia will certainly have felt the impact of the colossal iceberg’s visit. When icebergs detach from ice shelves, they drift with the ocean currents and wind while releasing cold fresh meltwater and nutrients as they melt. This process influences the local ocean circulation and fosters biological production around the iceberg. At its peak, the iceberg was melting at a rate of 7 meters per month, and in total it released a staggering 152 billion tonnes of fresh water and nutrients.
Anne Braakmann-Folgmann, a researcher at CPOM and PhD candidate at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, is lead author of the study. She said:
“This is a huge amount of melt water, and the next thing we want to learn is whether it had a positive or negative impact on the ecosystem around South Georgia.
“Because A68A took a common route across the Drake Passage, we hope to learn more about icebergs taking a similar trajectory, and how they influence the polar oceans.”
The journey of A68A has been charted using observations from 5 different satellites. The iceberg’s area change was recorded using a combination of Sentinel-1, Sentinel-3, and MODIS imagery. Meanwhile, the iceberg’s thickness change was measured using CryoSat-2 and ICESat-2 altimetry. By combining these measurements, the iceberg’s area, thickness, and volume change were determined.
Tommaso Parrinello, CryoSat Mission Manager at the European Space Agency, said:
“Our ability to study every move of the iceberg in such detail is thanks to advances in satellite techniques and the use of a variety of measurements. Imaging satellites record the location and shape of the iceberg and data from altimetry missions add a third dimension as they measure the height of surfaces underneath the satellites and can therefore observe how an iceberg melts.”
Reference: “Observing the disintegration of the A68A iceberg from space” by A. Braakmann-Folgmann, A. Shepherd, L. Gerrish, J. Izzard and A. Ridout, 10 January 2022, Remote Sensing of Environment.
Shattered 'alphabet soup' iceberg flushed a lot of fresh water into the ocean – Space.com
A rogue iceberg that drifted dangerously close to an Antarctic penguin population in 2020 and 2021 released billions of tons of fresh water into the ocean during its breakup.
A new study, based on satellite data, tracks the aftermath of the once-mighty iceberg A-68a, which held the title of world’s largest iceberg for more than three years before shattering into a dozen pieces. (NASA’s Earth Observatory once dubbed the various mini-bergs “alphabet soup.”)
For a while, there were worries the iceberg might threaten a penguin-filled island called South Georgia, located about 940 miles (1,500 kilometers) northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Happily, that never came to pass, but the new research shows that the iceberg flooded the region with fresh water, potentially affecting the local ecosystem and providing yet another example of the effects of global warming on the oceans.
The research consulted data gathered by missions including Sentinel-1 (operated by European Space Agency, or ESA), Sentinel-3 (ESA), CryoSat-2 (ESA) and ICESat-2 (NASA), as well as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, instrument that flies aboard two NASA satellites, Aqua and Terra.
The satellite data shows that during the iceberg’s three-month melting period in late 2020 and early 2021, the former A-68a flushed into the ocean about 162 billion tons (152 billion metric tonnes) of fresh water — equivalent to 61 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to a press release from United Kingdom study participant University of Leeds.
“The berg had melted enough as it drifted to avoid damaging the sea floor around South Georgia by running aground,” the university stated. “However, a side effect of the melting was the release of a colossal 152 billion tonnes of fresh water in close proximity to the island — a disturbance that could have a profound impact on the island’s marine habitat.”
Fresh meltwater and nutrients tend to flow from melting icebergs. The freshwater flooding alters ocean circulation and the ocean ecosystem nearby the glacier fragment, the university noted.
“The next thing we want to learn is whether it had a positive or negative impact on the ecosystem around South Georgia,” Leeds lead author and Ph.D. candidate Anne Braakmann-Folgmann said in the same statement.
She noted the iceberg moved across a common ocean “highway” known as the Drake Passage, so the fate of A68-A may help understand how icebergs in that zone influence the ocean in general.
A study based on the research was published in the forthcoming March 1 issue of Remote Sensing of Environment.
Robot dog that can hike peaks in the Swiss Alps unaided could be used on other planets – Euronews
This robot dog hiked over a steep mountain in Switzerland – and it didn’t need the help of its humans to overcome the many obstacles of the rough terrain.
The skilled dog bot could be used to reach areas that are too dangerous or inaccessible to humans, including other planets, according to its creators.
The research by ETH Zurich effectively allows ANYmal, a four-legged robot dog, to move quickly over rough terrain while still taking care – a new trait for robots.
The robot dog is able to work out how to walk over any terrain by combining what its sensors can “see” with what it knows about its surroundings, just like people or animals.
“Until now when a robot used perception mostly they were just assuming that the map is always correct,” said Takahiro Miki, a PhD student at the Robotics Systems Lab at ETH Zurich.
“But often when we go outdoors this doesn’t happen, like when you go into the tall grass”.
The team used landscapes with visual obstacles like deep snow and tall grass as an example of when a robot’s camera systems produce a map of the landscape that doesn’t work when the robot puts its foot down.
ANYmal’s control system allows it to prioritise its sense of touch over its visual perception.
The team put the ability to the test on a hiking route up Mount Etzel in the Swiss Alps which stands 1,098 metres above sea level.
“The slope was quite steep, like it was even hard sometimes for us. It was quite exhausting but the robot could go over all of these obstacles and we didn’t need to help the robot,” Miki said.
The scientists hope the new skill could allow ANYmal to be deployed anywhere on Earth and on space missions to other planets.
Hundreds of four-legged robots, many of them made by Hyundai-owned Boston Dynamics, are already in use, some in hostile industrial environments, including one performing survey work in Chernobyl and another working on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.
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