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A new map of Mars released by the European Space Agency has uncovered new details about the Red Planet’s past and offered new insights on where future missions should land. The map of Mars shows hundreds of thousands of mineral deposit sites that were created by the interactions between rock and water. These “aqueous minerals” were formed by rocks that have been chemically altered by the action of water in the past, and have typically been transformed into clays and salts.

Researchers believe that the map could lead to a future detailed investigation looking at Martian geology, and help them better understand why Mars changed from a very Earth-like planet to the red desert seen today.

Billions of years ago, Mars was covered by lakes, rivers and streams, and possibly even a huge ocean that covered much of its northern hemisphere.

However by about 3.5 billion years ago, much of that water, along with the Martian atmosphere completely disappeared.

Scientists believe this may have occurred after the Red Planet lost its magnetic field, which led to the atmosphere being gradually stripped away.

John Carter, Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS) and Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM), Université Paris-Saclay and Aix Marseille Université, France said: “This work has now established that when you are studying the ancient terrains in detail, not seeing these minerals is actually the oddity.

“I think we have collectively oversimplified Mars.

“The evolution from lots of water to no water is not as clear cut as we thought, the water didn’t just stop overnight.

“We see a huge diversity of geological contexts, so that no one process or simple timeline can explain the evolution of the mineralogy of Mars. That’s the first result of our study.

“The second is that if you exclude life processes on Earth, Mars exhibits a diversity of mineralogy in geological settings just as Earth does.”

Researchers “painstakingly” spent the last decade creating this map using data from ESA’s Mars Express Observatoire pour la Mineralogie, l’Eau, les Glaces et l’Activité (OMEGA) instrument and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument.

On Earth, water-rich clays and minerals are created when water reacts with rocks under a variety of conditions.

For example, when small amounts of water interact with volcanic rock, it leads to the formation clay minerals such as smectite and vermiculite.

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These minerals retain many of the same chemical elements — particularly iron and magnesium — as the volcanic rocks they originated from.

In a statement, ESA wrote: “The big surprise is the prevalence of these minerals.

“Ten years ago, planetary scientists knew of around 1000 outcrops on Mars. This made them interesting as geological oddities.

“However, the new map has reversed the situation, revealing hundreds of thousands of such areas in the oldest parts of the planet.”

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