Researchers have announced the discovery of a massive slab of ice just below the surface of Mars, thought to be as large as the combined landmasses of California and Texas.
The discovery comes as part of a new study that examined terraced craters at a region called Arcadia Planitia. This area is situated along roughly the same latitudes that the U.S.-Canadian border and Kansas are on Earth, and the craters that are found there measure between 1,075 to 1,410 feet (328 to 430 m) wide. Though craters of that size are usually bowl shaped, in this region of Mars they are terraced, which can occur when non-uniform substrates exist below the surface, as Space.com points out.
— NaClH2OBoy (@NaClH2OBoy) September 1, 2015
Scientists have long known that large amounts of water lay trapped beneath the surface of Mars, locked away as ice, but it was generally thought these deposits were to be found near the poles. Recently, researchers have begun to uncover evidence that ice may lie underneath the mid and low latitude areas of Mars. In eons past, the amount of water found on Mars changed dramatically, due to the planet’s unstable orbit. Since Mars isn’t possessed of a large moon (like Earth is) to act as a stabilizing force, the planet’s axis wobbles more freely, leading to more regular ice ages.
— The Daily Rupert (@TheMurdochTimes) August 30, 2015
The possibility that ice may be more widespread on Mars is likely to have a direct impact on the probability that life may exist on the Red Planet. Nearly everywhere on Earth that scientists have found water, they have uncovered life nearby. Some researchers have asserted that life could have existed on Mars if and when large bodies of water were present on the surface, and that it may still reside there, hidden away in underground aquifers.
New image from Mars shows the planet’s south polar ice cap and ancient, cratered highlands,(Expand for full view). pic.twitter.com/PkFSbhPrQj
— Mike (@MikeTaylor2011) September 10, 2015
Researchers utilized the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in order to measure the depth of the craters (and create 3D models of them), while using the orbiter’s Shallow Radar to determine the composition of each layer. They found that the ice deposit lies just under the surface layer of dirt, and is roughly 130 feet (40 m) thick, according to CBS News. The most extensive ice sheet to be found at those latitudes, it is likely tens of millions of years old, according to lead author Ali Bramson.
“We believe this ice to be a relic of a past climate when snowfall could occur at these latitudes.”
The researchers now hope to model the ice sheet in order to determine further details regarding its location and longevity just below the surface of Mars.
[Photo by American Geophysical Union via Space.com]