Our Place in Space: Utopia Planitia

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, U is for…


Earlier this month, we talked about Jezero Crater on Mars.  There’s strong and compelling evidence to suggest that Jezero Crater was once filled with liquid water.  In other words, Jezero Crater used to be a lake.  If Jezero Crater used to be a Martian lake, then the nearby region of Utopia Planitia was probably once a Martian ocean.

As you can see in the highly technical diagram above, much of Mars’s northern hemisphere was once covered in water.  Probably.  Okay, as a responsible science blogger who wouldn’t want to make you think there’s scientific consensus about a topic when there is not scientific consensus about a topic, I should make it clear to you that the topic of ancient Martian oceans is somewhat controversial in the scientific community.  Scientists are still arguing over what may or may not be ancient Martian shorelines, among other things.

But let’s assume that ancient Mars did have oceans of liquid water on its surface (that seems like a safe assumption to me, but I’m not a scientist—I’m just a guy with a blog).  If so, those oceans would have covered much of Mars’s northern hemisphere.  Today, Mars is sort of a lopsided planet, with generally low elevation terrain in the north and generally higher elevation terrain in the south.  So if ancient Mars did have large amounts of liquid water on its surface, common sense tells us that that water would have accumulated in the low elevation regions (i.e., the northern hemisphere).

Utopia Planitia is one of those low elevation regions in the northern hemisphere.  The terrain is also relatively flat, making Utopia Planitia a fairly easy place to land a spacecraft.  Several robotic missions to Mars have already landed there, the most recent being China’s Zhurong Rover.  And as if all that weren’t enticing enough, ground penetrating RADAR has detected frozen water underground in the southwestern portion of Utopia Planitia.

In the distant future, Utopia Planitia may end up being the site of a major human colony on Mars.  It’s a safe place to land, there’s a supply of water nearby, and it’s a scientifically interesting region.

On the other hand, if plans to terraform Mars ever come to fruition, Utopia Planitia may end up being part of a Martian ocean once again.  As I said before, it’s a low elevation region.  As we transform Mars into a more Earth-like world, water will start to accumulate in places like Utopia Planitia first, at which point we’d probably have to change the name from Utopia Planitia (plains of Utopia) to Utopia Mare (sea of Utopia).

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P.S.: As a Star Trek fanatic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this.  Many of the ships from Star Trek were built at the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars, according to Star Trek lore.