Enormous water ice reserves found close to the surface on Mars
Scientists have found reserves of “water ice” on Mars, a discovery which makes human visitation to the planet much more viable. The reserves were found around the mid-latitudes of Mars, with images of the planet revealing bands of blue material – assumed to be water ice – emerging from between eroded cliffs.
The study examined images of material taken from eight different sites on the planet, with rock erosion revealing bluish bands of ice that could been seen overhead. The images were taken by HiRISE – nope, not South London’s newest trip-hop artist, but rather an exceptionally powerful camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
As well as providing a feasible water source for legions of future human visitors, the discovery gives credence to the idea that Mars’ middle section saw heavy periods of snowfall millions of years ago (back in the old days when the planet was tilted on a steeper axis than is currently the case).
The idea that water ice is present on the red planet has long been explored; in 2002, NASA’s Odyssey mission monitored the planet from orbit to detect signs of shallow ground ice. Six years later, in 2008, the NASA Phoenix mission extracted water ice near the north pole in Mars. Progression was made in 2016 as scientists operating the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) found a hefty, buried sheet of ice, with a similar volume of water as Lake Superior – the largest of North America’s Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, it was only as recently as 2015 that NASA confirmed the presence of liquid, as opposed to ice, water on the planet. Dr Michael Myers, the lead scientist on NASA’s Mars exploration programme, spoke to The Guardian, explaining, “[t]here is liquid water today on the surface of Mars […] because of this, we suspect that it is at least possible to have a habitable environment today.” Crikey.
The above was recently called into question, however, with the news that the so-called liquid water might actually be, er, rolling sands. NASA’s scientists in reality found that the evidence for liquid water was ambiguous, with a paper published in Nature Geoscience revealing that Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) in Eos Chasma, a deep depression on the planet, are “inconsistent with models for water sources”. Hmm…
In the meantime, the space agency’s most recent findings prove an exciting addition to the viable habitation narrative, registering feasible water sources for future space explorers. As early as 2016, NASA warned that, while ice mining in theory provided a viable water source, logistical difficulty (mining through 30ft of rock as a prerequisite) meant the source was negated by sheer inefficiency.
The new images, which reveal ice sheets lying within only a few feet of the surface, close enough to be seen within aerial shot, mean the inefficiency caveat ceases: “It’s looking more encouraging that water ice could be available at depths shallow enough that could be used as resources for human missions to Mars,” explained Angel Abbud-Madrid, director for the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.
In the meantime, there’s more digging – literally and metaphorically – to be done. The properties of the ice (its depth, purity and so on) are yet to be determined. Whether it could be used for life-supporting practices, such as crop-growing or cultivating hydrogen for fuel, has yet to be discerned by planetary geologists. That being said, the discovery gives a whole new momentum to the “Life on Mars” ideal.
Images: NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Arizona