USGS: Ice Sheets on Mars Hint at Past Snowfall

Esther Moore
January 13, 2018

The sheer size of the ice sheets could help scientists better understand the history of Mars and its climate, NASA said in a new report. "If you had a mission at one of these sites, sampling the layers going down the scarp, you could get a detailed climate history of Mars", said MRO project scientist Leslie Tamppari. They found the ice at the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, which is equivalent to Earth's regions like South America or Scotland, and believe it could "be a useful source of water for future human exploration of the red planet", they wrote. They identified eight locations where erosion had exposed apparent glaciers, some of which extend 330 feet (100 meters) or more into the Red Planet's subsurface.

Although ice has always been known to exist on Mars, a better understanding of its depth and location could be vital to future human explorers, said the report in the U.S. journal Science.

The underground water ice deposits were previously mapped out by the MRO's Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument, but there were limits to what could be learned from those scans.

'What we've seen here are cross-sections through the ice that give us a 3-D view with more detail than ever before'.

Aside from the discovery of the ice deposits, the researchers were also surprised to find that they could potentially be mined.

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A color-enhanced scarp on Mars, showing the icy region in blue.

Interestingly, scientists think that Mars' obliquity - the tilt of the planet's axis relative to the plane of its orbit - has shifted a fair bit over the past few million years, varying between about 15 and 35 degrees, Dundas said.

In a study published today in the journal Science, researchers using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) investigated eight steep and eroded slopes (known as scarps) at various locations across Mars. And the ice is buried by just a few feet of Martian dirt in places, meaning it might be accessible to future crewed missions. Those cliffs formed through a process called sublimation, in which exposed ice turned directly into water vapour. "You don't see a high-tech solution", Byrne said.

"Humans need water wherever they go, and it's very heavy to carry with you", said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson, a co-author of the report. Other ice that exists at these latitudes is covered by layers of Martian dust, or regolith.

For the first time, high-resolution images show the three-dimensional structure of massive ice deposits on Mars. 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. Terrestrial ice deposits are often mined to see what lies within, so perhaps one day we'll have the chance to sample Martian ice too.

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