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Chinese rover discovers significant climate change on Mars dating back 400,000 years

By: April Carson

China's Zhurong Mars rover has discovered compelling evidence of a significant climate shift on Mars approximately 400,000 years ago. In its exploration of Utopia Planitia, the rover encountered dark ridges gracefully layered atop luminous dunes, creating a mesmerizing sight that hints at the dynamic history of the Red Planet.

Under the leadership of Li Chunlai from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists utilized the rover's instruments along with high-resolution observations from China's Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter. Their objective: to delve deeper into the examination of expansive sand dunes located in close proximity to Zhurong's landing site in May 2021. "The landscape here presents us with a unique opportunity," Dr. Li said at the time, "to unveil the mysterious history of Martian climate evolution."

Over hundreds of thousands of years, the crescent shape of the dunes has gradually eroded. Atop the dune fields, long dark ridges known as transverse aeolian ridges (TARs) have formed. Interestingly, these TARs appear to be oriented differently from the wind-blown dunes. Although TARs have been observed across Mars at lower mid-latitudes, previous global atmospheric circulation models have failed to explain their formation. However, a breakthrough has finally shed light on this mystery.

By combining Li's observations with a model of Martian climate and winds, the team is now able to suggest that TARs are linked to the presence of standing waves in Mars' atmosphere. These atmospheric disturbances cause surface air pressure patterns to form, which in turn generate winds traveling perpendicular to the dunes.

During Zhurong's exploration of the dunes, it was discovered that these crescent-shaped formations consist of a brighter material beneath the darker material that makes up the TARs. From its orbital perspective, Tianwen-1 observed a total of 2,262 bright dunes scattered across the surface of Mars. By analyzing the number of craters that have impacted these dunes, the research team estimates that they were formed between 2.1 million and 400,000 years ago. This implies that the dark TARs must have formed within the last 400,000 years, subsequently overlaying the older dunes.

These dates align with the commencement and conclusion of Mars' most recent significant ice age. The fact that the TARs developed at a distinct orientation from the dunes suggests a shift in wind direction within the lower mid-latitudes, coinciding with the ice age's conclusion.

This discovery proves that Mars is, and always has been, an inherently dynamic planet. Li and his team's research serves to further our understanding of the Red Planet's climate history and its potential for habitation.

The ice age came into being and eventually came to an end due to fluctuations in the angle at which Mars spins. These changes were a result of the Milankovitch cycles, which encompass the periodic shifting of a planet's rotational axis in relation to the plane of its orbit. The intricate interplay between the gravitational forces of the sun, Jupiter, and the other planets, along with the shape and precession of Mars' orbit, contribute to these cycles.

Both Earth and Mars undergo these cycles, which correspond to shifts in climate. In the case of Mars, its angle of rotation, known as obliquity, fluctuated between 15 degrees and 35 degrees approximately 2.1 million to 400,000 years ago, wreaking havoc on its climate. Presently, Mars maintains an obliquity of around 25 degrees.

By studying the effects of obliquity on Mars' atmosphere, we can gain a better understanding of how similar planetary environments act under varying conditions. Perhaps this could one day help us in our quest to explore other planets and moons for signs of life.

Contrary to expectations, ice ages on Mars differ from those on Earth. Martian ice ages experience higher temperatures at the poles and the migration of water vapor and dust towards the mid-latitudes. This results in the formation of a significant layer of water and dust beneath the surface in certain locations below 60 degrees latitude, while it exists almost everywhere above 60 degrees.

It appears that Mars has undergone many climate shifts since it formed 4.5 billion years ago, and Li's research demonstrates how much we still have to learn about our nearest planetary neighbor. Onwards and upwards as we explore the history of a mysterious world.

The geological era presently observed on Mars is referred to as the Amazonian epoch. It commenced approximately 3.55 to 1.88 billion years ago and is characterized by the frequency of impacts during this period.

"Decoding the Amazonian climate is crucial for unraveling the mysteries behind the present-day Martian landscape, the storage of volatile substances, and the condition of the atmosphere. This understanding allows us to connect current observations and ongoing processes with our models of Mars' ancient climate," stated Li. "By studying the climate of Mars as it exists today, we can enhance the accuracy of our physical models that describe the evolution of Martian climate and landscape, and even develop groundbreaking new theories."

Indeed, Li and his team have sparked a new era of exploration into Martian climate change. With the help of China's Mars missions, we will continue to study our neighboring planet in hopes of gaining valuable insights into its past and present.

Only time will tell what revelations await us as we unlock the secrets of Mars' mysterious geological history. Anything is possible — with the power of exploration, we may even discover life beyond our own world.

The research results were officially published in the renowned scientific journal Nature on July 5th.

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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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