Scientists have discovered large sections of underlying water ice on Mars, opening new possibilities for future exploration of the planet. On Friday’s issue of journal Science, a team of researchers led by U.S. Geological Survey planet geologist Colin Dundas have presented eight Martian regions where erosion has occurred.
Using HiRise, a powerful camera installed on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have found thick ice sheets at the red planet’s mid-latitudes. The large deposits of water ice are believed to be buried a meter or two below the surface at unexpectedly low latitudes and extend up to 100 meters tall. What’s more, the deposits found appear to be made of pure ice.
Moreover, researchers believe it’s possible that the layers of subterranean ice could be holding a record of Mars’ past climate. More importantly, the large deposits of ice could potentially be a huge source of water for future human exploration of the red planet.
A few years ago, the Mars Reconnaissance beamed back data and high-resolution images showing a pale sliver of blue among the red dust covering the planet. Upon looking at the images, Dundas and his team discovered eight steep cliffs of what appears to be pure ice.
“This kind of ice is more widespread than previously thought,” Dundas told Science.
This is not the first time that ice was found on Mars. It’s long been known that ice covers the poles, and MRO’s radar instruments have detected signs of thick, buried ice across the red planet’s belly. Some researchers suspect that these ice deposits are remnants of glaciers that existed millions of years ago when Mars’ spin axis and orbit were different. The main difference is that back then, scientists have no way of determining the ice’s depth and properties.
Now that scientists have more leads as to the properties of the ice found underneath the planet’s surface, future Mars explorers will have more to go on as soon as they are able to land on it. Since large reserves can be found a meter or two beneath the planet’s surface, it could be easier for human explorers to mine the ice content and then use it to support further missions. Once humans are able to use Mars’ large reserves of water ice for drinking, for growing crops, and for generating fuel, the idea of a sustainable human base doesn’t seem too far-fetched.