The Chinese Mars rover Zhurong landed on the Martian plain of Utopia back in May 2021. However, the vehicle has now collected data and sent it to scientists, who have concluded that the area may have been covered by water in the past.
In its first 60 sols (Martian days), Zhurong traversed 450 metres of the plain, studded with small rocks. During its journey, the rover collected soil and dust samples and took pictures with a camera.
Now Liang Ding and his colleagues at the Harbin Polytechnic Institute in China have analysed this raw data and come up with startling discoveries.
Many of the rocks found around the landing site were covered with etchings and grooves on one side, suggesting that the soil had undergone intense erosion from the wind. However, some of the rocks also had a flaky texture, which usually results from interaction with water.
In addition, the rover has encountered several sculpted formations consisting of several metres of loose sediment. In doing so, Zhurong completely refuted geological data, which in 1976 gathered the landing module Viking 2.
The fact is that the Viking data interpreted the geological deposits of Mars as fragments of basaltic lava. However, Zhurong's research indicates that the Utopia Plain was formed by a much more complex geological pathway, as the Chinese rover did not detect basaltic lava.
The Viking 2 surveys were stymied by the idea that Mars was a large chunk of basalt, possibly with a few flood channels, but the new data confirm a paradigm shift towards a sedimentary Mars.
These initial results suggest there may have been an ancient ocean of liquid water at the site of the Utopia Plain billions of years ago. Perhaps, as it advances, the Mars rover Zhurong will finally answer the age-old question of whether there is liquid water on Mars.