There are many in the Mars exploration circles who see Valles Marineris as a “tell all” place, ripe for human exploration that can uncover the history of the planet and its ability to sustain microbial life.
That said, how can the multifaceted geology found at this site best be explored? Can future crews on the Red Planet safely dive into this massive canyon system? And what awaits those who explore a vast area branded as the Grand Canyon of Mars?
Valles Marineris is a mammoth feature; a system of canyons that bisect the surface of Mars, stretching for 4,000 kilometers and covering about one-fifth of the circumference of Mars. At some points, this colossal gorge is 200 km wide. In some places, the bottom of the canyon reaches a depth of 8 km.
Bottom line: That’s way deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon.
To encourage on-site human studies of Valles Marineris, some scientists have designated and tentatively named an area known as the “Noctic Landing” site. Its strategic location allows for the shortest possible surface excursions to the Martian volcanic plateau of Tharsis and Valles Marineris – that grand feature and area on the Red Planet that reveals the longest record of Mars’ geology and evolution through time.
Tharsis is the area of Mars that has had the longest and most extensive volcanic history and may still be volcanically active. Some of the youngest lava flows on Mars have been identified on the western flanks of the Tharsis Ardennes.
In addition, these flows are within the driving range of future pressurized rover traverses.
Top priority science
“I think when it comes to planning human missions to Mars, we may be past the point of thinking only about theoretical scientific objectives in location-independent ways,” said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center. in California and the SETI Institute.
Lee is president of the Mars Institute, an international, non-governmental, non-profit research organization dedicated to advancing the scientific study, exploration and public understanding of Mars. He is also director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, an international multidisciplinary field research project focused on Mars analog studies at the Haughton impact crater site on Devon Island in the high Arctic.
We can and should now look for human landing sites where most, if not all of our top-priority scientific goals can be achieved, Lee told Space.com. That human landing zone would likely provide multiple ways to extract water locally — something a robotic reconnaissance mission could establish — and where it would make sense to lay a foundation for long-term exploration, he said.
Noctis Landing on Mars is an apparently flat transition area between Noctis Labyrinthus and Valles Marineris. Credit: Pascal Lee At the intersection
Lee is passionate that a site he calls Noctis Landing is an apparently flat transition area between Noctis Labyrinthus (Latin for ‘the labyrinth of the night) and Valles Marineris itself.
Not only does Noctis Landing offer a large number and wide range of interesting regions for short-term exploration, it is also strategically located at the crossroads between Tharsis and Valles Marineris, which are essential for long-term exploration. The area is distinguished by its maze-like system of deep valleys with steep walls.
“If you go east or south from Noctis Landing, you go deeper into Valles Marineris and you can look for signs of past life,” Lee said. “If you go west or north from Noctis, you can climb the giant volcanoes of Mars with their many caves and you can look for existing life.”
No rock climbing required
As a result, Noctis Landing’s location is unique, as it is literally at the crossroads of the search for signs of past and present life on Mars.
As for exploring Valles Marineris, the main benefit of Noctis Landing is that you can access all of the canyon’s rock layers without resorting to rock climbing, Lee said.
“Thanks to the gigantic Oudemans impact crater near Noctis Landing, there are gigantic slabs of Valles Marineris canyon walls laid flat, ready for you to explore, one rock layer at a time, by simply driving across the canyon floor,” he added. Lee to it. .
Once down at Noctis Landing, astronaut explorers have a number of routes to explore Mars. Credit: Pascal Lee, et al.
Late last year, Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia, reported that a significant amount of hidden water has been spotted in the central part of Mars’ dramatic canyon system, Valles Marineris.
The sighting came via the European Space Agency-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Mitrofanov is the principal investigator of the TGO-toed Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND) neutron telescope. That instrument maps the hydrogen – a measure of the water content – in the top meter of the Martian floor.
Mitrofanov and colleagues found evidence of unusually high hydrogen concentrations in the heart of Valles Marineris on Mars.
Unclear mix of circumstances
“With TGO, we can see up to a meter below this dusty layer and see what’s really going on beneath the surface of Mars — and, crucially, locate water-rich ‘oases’ that could not be detected with previous instruments,” Mitrofanov explained.
(opens in new tab) in a statement issued by ESA.
“Assuming the hydrogen we see is bound to water molecules, as much as 40% of the material near the surface in this region appears to be water,” Mitrofanov said.
As the ESA statement puts it, the detection suggests that “a special, as yet unclear mix of conditions must be present in Valles Marineris for the water to be conserved — or replenished in some way.”
Mitrofanov and his research collaborators published their work
(opens in new tab) in the March 2022 issue of the journal Icarus, stating: “Such ice is not only an intriguing material for the search for frozen proto-life fragments or complex organic molecules from the early Mars era, but is also an indispensable natural resource for future Mars exploration that is easy to abuse.” fog banks
NASA’s Lee underlined the intriguing finding of frequent fog in Valles Marineris. While it is widely believed that the average Martian atmosphere contains too little water vapor to make it worth compressing and exploiting it, the presence of ice fog, the most likely explanation for the fog banks that often fill Valles Marineris, indicates that the Martian atmosphere could be locally supersaturated in water, possibly to amounts worth extracting,” he said.
The presence of fog in Valles Marineris, Lee said, also suggests that at least some of the hydrogen detected by Mitrofanov and his collaborators is likely in the form of H2O, not just water from hydration in minerals.
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express captured this image of fog at Valles Marineris. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum) Going into the air
Clearing Valles Marineris of its scientific assets could be complemented by air vehicles, said Abigail Fraeman, a research scientist and deputy project scientist at the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
That view is clearly supported by the airborne success of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter at Jezero Crater.
“We can envision all kinds of possibilities for future exploration of Mars with air resources,” Fraeman told Space.com. “One of the benefits of exploring Mars from the air is the ability to cover much longer distances over terrains that would be too treacherous for rovers.”
Astronauts working on the surface of Mars can use a helicopter (left in the sky), similar to the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. (Image credit: NASA)
Fraeman said Valles Marineris is an example of a site that could really benefit from helicopter reconnaissance. “This platform could allow us to explore parts of really ancient crust visible in the canyon walls, the steep stratified sedimentary deposits in the center of the canyon, and even the mysterious recurring slope lines that occur on steep slopes.” in Valles Marineris and can be formed by very salty liquid water.”
Exploring these features, Fraeman added, “would help us answer questions about the entire history of Mars, from its first formation to the present day, and provide unprecedented insight into mechanisms that influence the climate and habitability of Mars.” as well as rocky worlds beyond our solar system.”
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