Sheets of ice found below Mars’ surface could be a boon for human exploration

If you look at a photo of Mars, you’ll mostly see red.The rust-colored world is known for its oxidized look, but if you dig down into the dirt, Mars gets a lot more interesting.The red planet is actually hiding pockets of water-ice up to about 100 meters thick just below its red surface, according to a new study published in the journal Science this week. The research found eight different pockets of ice of varying size not far below the planet’s surface.That ice could have implications for science, human exploration, and even long-term living on Mars.

“This ice is a critical target for science and exploration: it affects modern geomorphology, is expected to preserve a record of climate history, influences the planet’s habitability, and may be a potential resource for future exploration,” the study says.

While scientists have known that Mars is a pretty icy place for years, the new study helps confirm exactly where those ice sheets exist on the red planet.

When can we go?

Scientists and engineers have long-thought that ice could be a boon for human exploration of the red world.

NASA and other organizations hoping to send people to Mars want to harvest as many resources from the planet itself as possible in order to limit the amount of stuff they would need to send from Earth off to Mars.

“There has been discussion by the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group… and others in the community of using ice as a resource,” lead author and planetary scientist Colin Dundas, said via email. “Our research may be useful information but it will be up to them to determine how to use it.”

If there is a relatively large cache of ice just under the Martian surface, as this study — which is based on data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — suggests, it could help any future explorers who would want to use utilize it fuel or even just water.

“In many ways, water is the key resource: Humans need liquid water biologically, water can be processed to provide oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for energy generation and even rocket fuel. Water ice deposits may be that resource,” Richard Zurek, the chief Mars scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in an email.

“… The question is how much energy/work does it take to extract the water, to transport it to where the humans are and then to process it?”

That said, it may not be all that easy to access the ice found in the new study.

According to Zurek, who is an MRO project scientist but did not participate in the new study, the newly-identified sites with water-ice are in the higher latitudes of Mars, meaning that sunlight and temperatures in those areas go through extreme swings throughout the year.

This could make it more difficult for a human explorer to extract those resources, Zurek said.

Ice sheets on Mars

But how did that water-ice get there in the first place?

The new study suggests that the ice built up over time, much the same way that Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets came to be.

Here’s how it works on Mars: When the planet is farther from the sun in its orbit, and it snows, that snow remains on the surface and becomes a buildup of ice.

Over time, what first began as snow is “compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice,” the study says. Some of that ice was then covered up by the movement of dirt on the surface of the planet, saving it from sublimating — turning straight from a solid into gas.

Aside from potentially aiding in human exploration of Mars, the newly-mapped ice sheets could also unlock secrets hidden in Mars’ past.

“We expect the vertical structure of Martian ice-rich deposits to preserve a record of ice deposition and past climate,” the study says.

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