Whoa, Mars might have as much water underground as Earth does

If you're planning on helping to colonize Mars, you'll be thrilled to hear that a recent analysis of Martian meteorites indicates that there may be more water on Mars than we previously thought — a lot more. Scientists now think that the amount of water that's underground on Mars could rival that of Earth. The discovery has rekindled speculations about the red planet's ability to sustain life — including, potentially, that of human visitors.

The research was led by former Carnegie postdoctoral scientist Francis McCubbin, who's now at the University of New Mexico, and the analysis itself was performed by Carnegie Institution investigator Erik Hauri and team. Their findings are to appear in the journal, Geology.

To reach this conclusion, the scientists studied what are called shergottite meteorites. These are relatively young objects that originated through the partial thawing of the Martian mantle, which is the layer immediately under the crust. This melting process resulted in its crystallization in the shallow subsurface and on the surface itself. These meteorites landed on earth about 2.5 million years ago, likely after an asteroid smashed into Mars. These ancient objects are a boon to "meteorite geochemists", who study them in order to get a better understanding of Mars's geological processes.

In a press release, Hauri explains what they did:

Whoa, Mars might have as much water underground as Earth doesS

We analyzed two meteorites that had very different processing histories. One had undergone considerable mixing with other elements during its formation, while the other had not. We analyzed the water content of the mineral apatite and found there was little difference between the two even though the chemistry of trace elements was markedly different. The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet's differentiation.

Looking at the mineral's water content, the researchers figure that the Martian mantle source from which the meteorites were derived must contain between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) water. They were able to determine these values with a new technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS). The researchers theorize that volcanoes are responsible for getting the water to the surface.

And here's where it gets really interesting: When comparing these numbers, the upper mantle on Earth contains about 50-300 ppm water. This would indicate that there is roughly the same amount of water in parts of the Martian mantle as there is inside of Earth.

This is potent information for astrobiologists who speculate about the potential for Mars to sustain life at some point in its history. It could also have implications for future missions to Mars in which water will be required for human visitors or colonists — not to mention what it could mean to potential terraforming efforts.

Image via Shutterstock.com/Jan Kaliciak. Inset image via NASA.