Ice Ice Baby
China's Mars rover has uncovered underground polygon structures buried beneath the Red Planet's surface — and it looks like they're related to Mars' long-lost water, too.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) say that using data from the Zhurong rover's ground-penetrating radar capabilities, they've found several mysterious subterranean polygons located some 35 feet below its surface that are likely formed by ice.
Using this high-tech radar, the rover combed Utopia Planitia, a large plain in the planet's northern hemisphere where Zhurong's inactive husk still rests, to see what was happening below. The CAS team found, per Zhurong's readings, a total of 16 "polygonal wedges" in an area of about three-quarters of a square mile, "suggesting a wide distribution of such terrain under Utopia Plainitia," the Nature Astronomy paper explains.
Though NASA had detected similar fascinating Martian polygons on previous occasions, this is the first time anyone's used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to take measurements on them. While they can't say for certain just yet how the polygons were formed, the CAS researchers posited in their paper that they were "possibly generated by freeze-thaw cycles" such as those that happen in the winter and spring here on Earth.
Even more intriguingly, the paper predicted that the polygons likely formed during the Late Hesperian–Early Amazonian eras on Mars, which took place between 3.7 and 2.9 billion years ago, which would indicate that there had previously been bodies of water on or around the area where they were found.
Notably, Zhurong has also made headlines this year for its readings that suggest with greater credibility than ever before that Mars used to be home to bountiful bodies of water — and perhaps, as one incredible recent finding suggests, as recently as 400,000 years ago.
Another of the Chinese rover's recent discoveries suggests that there were some big-deal floods on the Red Planet as well — and those same floods seem to have created the layers under Utopia Planitia's surface where the polygonal structures now live.
Remarkably similar to the "patterned ground" phenomenon found here on Earth, these Martian polygons could not only provide more evidence that the Red Planet used to be home to abundant water, but also that it used to be home to life as well.
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