U of G Scientists Uncover First Evidence of Water Still On Mars

October 17, 2007 - News Release

Physicists at the University of Guelph have detected the first "on-the-spot" evidence of significant amounts of water still existing on Mars.

Rather than existing in pools, the water is trapped in sub-surface soil on the red planet, most likely the remnants of oceans or pools that evaporated, according to lead researcher Iain Campbell.

"Our work is the first in situ evidence for total bound water in the Martian subsurface,” said Campbell, a professor emeritus who has been working on the project for two years with fellow physics professor Ralf Gellert. U of G physicist Joanne O'Meara also provided computations that were a crucial element of the analysis.

The discovery was made courtesy of the Mars Spirit rover, a robotic device that has been exploring the Red Planet since early 2004 and sending back information about the planet's surface to scientists here on Earth, including Gellert and other members of the Mars rover team.

An X-ray spectrometer called an APXS on the rover's arm captured the data about the trapped water. "Other instruments suggest the possibility — the APXs lets us determine the actual amount," said Campbell, whose research group created a computer package that is used to help analyze data collected by the spectrometer on the Mars rover.

The water appears to be contained in mineral compounds in sulphur-rich soil just beneath the planet's surface, Campbell said. The distinctive bright white material was churned up by the rover's wheels as it moved across the soft red surface in the Columbia Hills region of the planet.

In a paper that is in the final stage of review by the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the team says the bright, sulphur-rich material contains up to 16 per cent water.

Besides fuelling new evidence that there is water on Mars — considered a requirement for life on Earth's planetary neighbour — the discovery is helping scientists in designing a more sophisticated system for capturing information about the Red Planet.

“We've learned a lot from these new types of samples,” said Gellert. “Finding samples with the rovers in an otherwise dry and arid environment helps us to understand what happened to the water in the Martian past.”

Gellert is the lead scientist for the current APXS, which he helped to develop before arriving at U of G in 2005. He is now principal investigator for an international group of scientists developing a new APXS for the Mars Science Laboratory mission scheduled for late 2009. The device will arrive at Guelph next spring for testing and calibration before being delivered to NASA for installation on a new, souped-up rover.

Prof. Iain Campbell
Department of Physics
519 824-4120, Ext. 52325

Prof. Ralf Gellert
Department of Physics
519 824-4120, Ext. 53992

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, 519-824-4120, Ext. 56982.

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