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Marsquakes could be key to unlocking Mars' watery secrets

The search for water on Mars has long captivated scientists and space enthusiasts alike. While traditional methods used on Earth may not be effective in detecting liquid water deep beneath the Martian surface, a new approach involving marsquakes could provide the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for.

Researchers from Penn State, led by doctoral candidate Nolan Roth and Professor Tieyuan Zhu, have proposed an innovative technique that could revolutionize our understanding of Mars’ hydrological history.

The study suggests that analyzing electromagnetic signals produced by marsquakes could help identify water miles underground.

Focus of the research

“We explore the possibility of detecting and characterizing subsurface water on Mars using natural signals called seismo-electric interface responses,” noted the study authors.

“These seismo-electric interface responses can be created when marsquakes interact with liquid water held in deep aquifers, so they can be used as unambiguous signs of mobile water.”

What are marsquakes?

Marsquakes are seismic activities on Mars similar to earthquakes on Earth. They result from the sudden release of energy in the planet’s interior, causing ground vibrations.

Marsquakes can be caused by various factors, including volcanic activity, tectonic movements, or the impact of meteorites.

The study of marsquakes helps scientists understand the internal structure and geological activity of Mars. NASA’s InSight lander has been instrumental in detecting and studying these quakes since it landed on Mars in 2018.

The mystery of Mars’ missing water

Mars was once believed to have vast oceans, but over time, most of that water seemingly vanished.

“The scientific community has theories that Mars used to have oceans and that, over the course of its history, all that water went away. But there is evidence that some water is trapped somewhere in the subsurface. We just haven’t been able to find it,” explained Roth.

Listening to marsquakes

The researchers propose using a technique called the seismoelectric method to detect water on Mars. This approach relies on the unique electromagnetic signals produced when seismic waves pass through underground aquifers.

“If we listen to the marsquakes that are moving through the subsurface, if they pass through water, they’ll create these wonderful, unique signals of electromagnetic fields,” said Roth. “These signals would be diagnostic of current, modern-day water on Mars.”

Advantages of Mars’ dry surface

Interestingly, Mars’ dry surface may actually make it easier to detect these signals compared to Earth.

“On Mars, where the near-surface is certainly desiccated, no such separation is needed. In contrast to how seismoelectric signals often appear on Earth, Mars’ surface naturally removes the noise and exposes useful data that allows us to characterize several aquifer properties,” explained Professor Zhu.

Simulating Martian aquifers

To test their theory, the team created a model of the Martian subsurface and added simulated aquifers.

The results were promising, showing that the seismoelectric method could potentially reveal details about the aquifers’ thickness, physical properties, and even chemical composition, such as salinity.

Roth emphasized the potential impact of this research: “If we can understand the signals, we can go back and characterize the aquifers themselves. And that would give us more constraints than we’ve ever had before for understanding water on Mars today and how it has changed over the last 4 billion years. And that would be a big step ahead.”

Leveraging existing data

Surprisingly, the next steps in this research may involve analyzing data that’s already been collected on Mars. NASA’s InSight lander includes both a seismometer and a magnetometer.

By combining data from these instruments, scientists might be able to detect seismoelectric signals from existing measurements.

Beyond Mars: Exploring other worlds

The potential applications of this technique extend beyond Mars. Professor Zhu suggests that it could be used to measure the thickness of icy oceans on Jupiter’s moons.

“The message we want to give the community is there is this promising physical phenomena – which received less attention in the past – that may have great potential for planetary geophysics,” said Zhu.

As we continue to explore our solar system and search for signs of water and potential life, innovative approaches like the seismoelectric method may prove crucial in unveiling the secrets hidden beneath alien worlds.

The study is published in the journal JGR Planets.


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