Experimental investigation of the atmosphere‐regolith water cycle on present‐day mars

Abhilash Vakkada Ramachandran, María Paz Zorzano, Javier Martín‐torres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The water content of the upper layers of the surface of Mars is not yet quantified. Laboratory simulations are the only feasible way to investigate this in a controlled way on Earth, and then compare it with remote and in situ observations of spacecrafts on Mars. Describing the processes that may induce changes in the water content of the surface is critical to determine the present‐day habitability of the Martian surface, to understand the atmospheric water cycle, and to estimate the efficiency of future water extraction procedures from the regolith for In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). This paper illustrates the application of the SpaceQ facility to simulate the near‐surface water cycle under Martian conditions. Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) observations at Gale crater show a non‐equilibrium situation in the atmospheric H2O volume mixing ratio (VMR) at night‐time, and there is a decrease in the atmospheric water content by up to 15 g/m2 within a few hours. This reduction suggests that the ground may act at night as a cold sink scavenging atmospheric water. Here, we use an experimental approach to investigate the thermodynamic and kinetics of water exchange between the atmosphere, a non‐porous surface (LN2‐chilled metal), various salts, Martian regolith simulant, and mixtures of salts and simulant within an environment which is close to saturation. We have conducted three experiments: the stability of pure liquid water around the vicinity of the triple point is studied in experiment 1, as well as observing the interchange of water between the atmosphere and the salts when the surface is saturated; in experiment 2, the salts were mixed with Mojave Martian Simulant (MMS) to observe changes in the texture of the regolith caused by the interaction with hydrates and liquid brines, and to quantify the potential of the Martian regolith to absorb and retain water; and experiment 3 investigates the evaporation of pure liquid water away from the triple point temperature when both the air and ground are at the same temperature and the relative humidity is near saturation. We show experimentally that frost can form spontaneously on a surface when saturation is reached and that, when the temperature is above 273.15 K (0 °C), this frost can transform into liquid water, which can persist for up to 3.5 to 4.5 h at Martian surface conditions. For comparison, we study the behavior of certain deliquescent salts that exist on the Martian surface, which can increase their mass between 32% and 85% by absorption of atmospheric water within a few hours. A mixture of these salts in a 10% concentration with simulant produces an aggregated granular structure with a water gain of approximately 18‐ to 50‐wt%. Up to 53% of the atmospheric water was captured by the simulated ground, as pure liquid water, hydrate, or brine.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7421
Issue number21
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1 2021


  • Habitability
  • ISRU
  • Mars
  • Planetary protection
  • Pure liquid water
  • Water cycle simulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Information Systems
  • Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics
  • Biochemistry
  • Instrumentation
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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