Huge Underground Ice Sheets Discovered on Mars

A close-up of the false colour portion of the above image focusing in on the scarp to reveal the details. Credit NASA  JPL-Caltech  UA  USGS

The frozen water near the Martian surface was detected using images from NASA spacecraft Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter now orbiting Mars.

Underground ice found beneath Mars' surface extending to its middle latitude. Now, Colin Dundas and colleagues have pinpointed eight locations, using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), where steep, pole-facing slopes created by erosion expose substantial quantities of sub-surface ice.

Finding water or ice on Mars is becoming fairly commonplace these days, but this is a new one: researchers are reporting that they've spotted tall cliffs, up to 100 metres (328 feet) high, made of almost pure water ice in several locations on Mars!

"Here we have what we think is nearly pure water ice buried just below the surface". A study published Thursday by the journal Science contends this is a "game changer" for future human outposts.

The deposits were found at seven geological formations called scarps, with slopes up to 55 degrees, in the southern hemisphere and one in the northern hemisphere. However, previous scans using the MRO's Shallow Radar instrument were not enough to determine the extent and make-up of ice on the Red Planet.


The ice sheets which appeared bluish in the high-resolution images, looked like steep cliffs of glaciers, up to 100 meters tall. "In the mid-latitudes, it's normally covered by a blanket of dust or regolith", loose bits of rock atop a layer of bedrock, said research geologist Colin Dundas of the US Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, who led the study.

Shayne Byrne of the University of Arizona Luna and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson said the discovery was like looking at an ant farm from a glass on the side and seeing what's hidden beneath the ground. A scarp likely grows wider and taller as it "retreats", due to sublimation of the ice directly from solid form into water vapour.

Scientists have always believed that a third of Martian surface contains shallow ground ice, but the latest discovery of huge ice sheets in at least eight sites serves is sort of a "game-changer".

A lander or rover sent to drill down into one of these locations could provide us with a detailed chronology of Mars' past climate, and according to Byrne, "Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need". The size of the deposit, however, means that it will be a very long time before it completely sublimates into the atmosphere.

NASA plans to send the first human explorers to Mars by the 2030s.

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