Scientists discover thick ice sheets beneath the surface of Mars

Rachel Hardy
January 13, 2018

We've known for years that there is at least some water ice on Mars, but it's been hard to pin down where it is and how easy it would be to extract.

Although water ice deposits are known to exist from previous Mars missions, this new study analyzed the vertical structure and thickness of ice sheets using high-resolution imagery and topography from the HiRISE instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This ice, the researchers say, could be a tempting target for future exploration - as well as a valuable resource for Earthlings camped out on Mars.

This high-resolution NASA HiRISE image shows a detailed subsection of an icy scarp on Mars in enhanced color.

"We've found a new window into the ice for study, which we hope will be of interest to those interested in all aspects of ice on Mars and its history", said Dundas, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona.

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As reported in the journal Science (paywall), the water was found in both the north and south of Mars, at latitudes equivalent to South America and Scotland. An analysis of the scarps revealed that thick ice hides just below the surface. Water ice can be used, of course, for life support as well as for making fuels for surface and space vehicles. We investigated eight of these locations and found that they expose deposits of water ice that can be 100 meters thick, extending downward from depths as shallow as 1 to 2 meters below the surface.

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"If the conclusions of the paper are correct", he said, "you're looking at something that's nearly pure ice".

The ice could be a "game-changer" for human exploration and eventual settlement on the red planet.

MRO brought us even more evidence of ice on Mars in the past: pools of (what appears to be) pure ice, puddled on the floors of fresh meteorite craters. In the future, if there will be crewed missions, those sheets could be easily accessible. Some of that ice was then covered up by the movement of dirt on the surface of the planet, saving it from sublimating - turning straight from a solid into gas.

The ice contains bands and color variations that suggest it was formed layer by layer, perhaps as snow accumulated over time, leading to ice sheets.

"Mars is not the dry, arid planet it was thought of in the past".

The new study suggests that the ice built up over time, much the same way that Earth's glaciers and ice sheets came to be. The slopes are probably being continuously exposed as the ice sublimates into the Martian atmosphere, likely to cycle up to the poles and end up frozen there. Continuing to study those sheets could help researchers learn more about the climate history of the planet. The ice deposits likely originated as snowfall during Mars' high-obliquity periods and have now compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice.

Other reports by TheDailyFarc

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