The Lakes on Mars Might Not Be What Scientists Thought


| LAST UPDATE 08/23/2021

By Sharon Renee
mars water clay lakes
ESA via Getty Images

When scientists first discovered frozen lakes on Mars' surface, it was a major breakthrough. After all, given the Red Planet's harsh climate, potential evidence of water came as a surprise to most. Unfortunately, it appears things weren't actually how they seemed...

mars lakes water clay
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It all started back in 2018, when astronomers led by Roberto Orosei of Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica deployed an orbiter to study the polar ice caps found on Mars. Might there have been water hidden underneath all of that frozen ice? It certainly seemed that way...

water on mars clay
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The radar instrument they'd used for the investigation had come back with striking results: several distinct regions shinier than others were found beneath the surface. Why was that so important? According to researchers, those bright, reflective areas could have been the sign they were looking for of water on the Red Planet.

mars water clay nasa
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona via Getty Images

Unfortunately, their inclinations may have been inaccurate, after all. As astronomers recently discovered, there may be another viable reason for the shiny, striking regions they once found: clay. After further inspecting their data, scientists believe Smectites - a clay made up of eroded volcanic rocks and H2O - might be to blame here.

nasa water on mars
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To come to this conclusion, York University’s Isaac Smith froze a batch of Smectites to the average temperature of Mars' south pole. His goal was to determine if the clay's reflective signals may have been what the radar instrument had picked up on years back. Sure enough, the signals they reflected came back almost identical to the ones found on Mars.

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mars water lakes clay
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But while the recent finding may question everything researchers once thought they knew, the discovery can also offer answers to the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. "In planetary science, we often are just inching our way closer to the truth," Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained. "The original paper didn’t prove it was water, and these new papers don’t prove it isn’t. But we try to narrow down the possibilities as much as possible in order to reach consensus..."