Thanks to missions like Nasa’s Curiosity rover, we know Mars once had water – but until now we didn’t know how much.
Scientists have provided the best estimates yet, claiming it once had more water than the Arctic Ocean – and the planet kept these oceans for more than 1.5 billion years.
The findings suggest there was ample time and water for life on Mars to thrive, but over the last 3.7 billion years the red planet has lost 87 per cent of its water – leaving it barren and dry.
The study by scientists at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the first to determine just how much water Mars had in its past.
During its wet Noachian period – 4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago – it is estimated that it had enough water to cover the entire surface in a liquid layer 450 feet (137 metres) deep.
However, it’s likely that most of the water formed an ocean that occupied the northern hemisphere of Mars, which would have been as deep as one mile (1.6km) in places – comparable to the Mediterranean Sea on Earth.
Published in the journal Science, the research estimates that, in total, what is now the planet’s arid northern plains would have contained at least 12.4 million cubic miles (20 million cubic kilometres) of water.
‘Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,’ said Dr Geronimo Villanueva, first author of the paper and a scientist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
‘With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.’
It is thought that while 87 per cent of the water has since been lost to space, owing largely to the planet losing its atmosphere, the remaining 13 per cent resides in the ice caps.
But in the past, the ocean would have covered about 20 per cent of the planet’s surface area.
The most interesting conclusion, though, is that Mars stayed wet for longer than previously thought, which means it was habitable for longer.
‘We now know that Mars was wet for a much longer time than we thought before,’ said Dr Michael Mumma, co-author of the study and Senior Scientist at Nasa Goddard.
‘Curiosity shows it was wet for 1.5 billion years, already much longer than the period of time needed for life to develop on Earth.
‘And now we see that Mars must have been wet for a period even longer.’
The research was carried out using two telescopes at the Keck Observatory on Hawaii and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
To make the discovery, the scientists produced maps showing the distribution of normal water in the Martian atmosphere and ‘heavy’ water containing deuterium, a more massive form of hydrogen.
By analysing the ratio of ‘heavy’ to regular water they showed that Mars must have lost a volume of water 6.5 times larger than the amount trapped in the present day polar ice caps.
An ancient ocean containing the lost water would have covered 19 per cent of the planet’s surface.
It would have had a greater volume than the Arctic Ocean, which contains 18,750,000 cubic kilometres (11.7 million cubic miles) of water.
By comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers 17 per cent of the surface of the Earth and contains more than 310 million cubic kilometres (192.6 million cubic miles).
It is possible that Mars once had even more water, some of which may have been deposited below the surface. Because the new maps reveal microclimates and changes in the atmospheric water content over time, they may also prove to be useful in the search for underground water.