Scientists have found what they say are huge ice sheets stretching across Mars, a development that could be a “game-changer” in our mission to live there.
The research, using images from a Nasa spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet, found that there are eight sites that appear to have huge ice deposits on steep slopes. The scientists claim that the ice could be an easily accessible source of water for the explorers who hope to go and live there.
Scientists have long known that the surface of Mars has some shallow ground ice, and that there are major deposit at its poles. But the new research describes something entirely new: thick underground sheets that are exposed along large slopes that rise as much as 100 yards up from the planet.
“It was surprising to find ice exposed at the surface at these places. In the mid-latitudes, it’s normally covered by a blanket of dust or regolith,” loose bits of rock atop a layer of bedrock, said research geologist Colin Dundas of the US Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Centre in Flagstaff, Arizona, who led the study.
The latitudes were the equivalent on Earth of Scotland or the tip of South America.
The researchers used images from Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has studied the Martian atmosphere and terrain since 2006, including the history of apparent water flows on or near the surface.
The findings showed that ice may be more available than previously known for use as water to support future robotic or human exploration missions, perhaps even the establishment of a permanent Mars base. The water could be used for drinking and potentially conversion into oxygen to breathe.
“Humans need water wherever they go, and it’s very heavy to carry with you. Previous ideas for extracting human-usable water from Marswere to pull it from the very dry atmosphere or to break down water-containing rocks,” said planetary scientist Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, a co-author of the study in the journal Science.
“Here we have what we think is almost pure water ice buried just below the surface. You don’t see a high-tech solution,” Byrne added. “You can go out with a bucket and shovel and just collect as much water as you need. I think it’s sort of a game-changer. It’s also much closer to places humans would probably land as opposed to the polar caps, which are very inhospitable.”
The deposits were found at seven geological formations called scarps, with slopes up to 55 degrees, in the southern hemisphere and one in the northern hemisphere.
“Our interpretation is that this is consolidated snow deposited in geologically recent times,” Dundas said.
Additional reporting by agencies