NASA sent Curiosity to the Red Planet in 2012 to explore Gale Crater.
As the rover traveled across the planet’s surface, the researchers found light-colored rocks that surround faults that cross parts of the Martian landscape.
Recent work indicates that these widespread halo networks may have been the last water-rich environment in the modern age of Gale Crater.
Under the guidance of physicist Travis Gabriel, archival data from instruments were studied, which showed significant anomalies near light rocks.
Using new methods of data analysis, the research team found that the composition of these rocks is very high in silica and water.
“Our new analysis of archived data showed a striking similarity between all the fault haloes we observed and much later in the mission,” Gabriel said.
“Seeing these rift networks were so widespread and probably chock-full of opal was incredible.”
Scientists suggest that this opal in Gale Crater was formed during the modern era of Mars. These networks of cracks could be much more habitable than the harsh modern conditions on the surface.
“Given the widespread crack networks found in Gale Crater, it is reasonable to expect that these potentially habitable subsurface conditions have extended to many other regions of Gale Crater, and possibly other regions of Mars as well,” Gabriel said.
“These conditions must have formed long before the ancient lakes in Gale Crater dried up.”
The opal itself consists predominantly of two components: silica and water, with minor impurities such as iron.
Since opal is not a mineral, the water is not as tightly bound within the crystal structure. This means that if you crush it and apply heat, the opal will release its water.
Although Gabriel and his team are not in a position to make an exhaustive assessment of the water content of all of the halos, special neutron experiments they have performed on two of these halos demonstrate that a 1-meter halo can contain approximately 3 to 5 liters of water at the top of the surface.
At the poles of Mars, there is a large amount of water ice among other volatiles such as carbon dioxide.
At present, Mars’ equator is water-poor by comparison, and there is no sign of widespread water ice deposits near the surface. The study suggests that water-rich opal may cover many landscapes in regions of Mars.
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