Large Amounts of Water Ice Found Beneath Mars' Surface

Large Amounts of Water Ice Found Beneath Mars' Surface

In 2011, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sent back images of unusual dark streaks on some slopes of Mars, news that reverberated throughout the scientific community, many members of which postulated that the geological feature could be a sign of flowing water. Most of this precious liquid escaped into space, but some of it stayed behind, transforming into ice and settling beneath the rocky surface.

Researchers previously used MRO's Shallow Radar (SHARAD) to map extensive underground water-ice sheets in middle latitudes of Mars and estimate that the top of the ice is less than about 10 yards beneath the ground surface.

"The takeaway is that we have a new window into Martian ice underground", Dundas says.

The new study not only suggests that underground water ice lies under a thin covering over wide areas, it also identifies eight sites where ice is directly accessible, at latitudes with less hostile conditions than at Mars' polar ice caps.

"Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need", said one of the report's authors, Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

However, they are not as treacherous as the poles, and if a sample could be drilled from one of the glaciers, researchers could learn plenty about Mars' climate and the potential for life on earth's neighbouring planet. In reality, there's a lot more going on with Mars than most people realize. Today the two planets' tilts are about the same.

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

This research benefited from coordinated use of multiple instruments on Mars orbiters, plus the longevities at Mars now exceeding 11 years for MRO and 16 years for Odyssey. Not having readily accessible water on Mars would be a real headache, and something that could delay or slow down exploration and migration efforts, and possibly force astronauts to the poles, where ice is more readily available at the surface. Orbital observations will continue, but future missions to the surface could seek additional information.

"Whilst water ice is known to be present in some locations on Mars, many questions remain about its layering, thickness, purity and extent", Dundas said. The Red Planet is always thought of in popular culture as being one step less habitable than Utah - dry, sandy desert in all directions, with nothing but rocks and the occasional cannonball to break up the scenery. Imaging with a spectrograph provided evidence of water at the Martian surface in the region, reinforcing the idea that this could be ice. 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.

Ice on Mars was initially discovered a few years ago, but at the time, we weren't entirely sure how much was there.

"We expect the vertical structure of Martian ice-rich deposits to preserve a record of ice deposition and past climate", the study says.

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