Scientists find thick sheets of ice just below Mars' surface

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

Scientists have discovered big ice sheets just below the surface of Mars.

"There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars", said the study's lead author, Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Mars ice cliffs could be key to supporting life on Red Planet Mars has ice sheets more than 100 meters deep hiding beneath its red dust, offering a potential water source for future explorers of the Red Planet, according to new research. 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. This discovery is a game changer on mankind's exploration of the read planet.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been circling the Red Planet for over 10 years now, sending back fantastic pictures of the Martian surface, using its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

These underground cliffs, or scarps, appear "to be almost pure ice", said the report.

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Researchers believe the ice formed relatively recently, because the sites appear smooth on the surface, unpocked by craters that would be formed by celestial debris smashing into the planet over time. The sites are in both northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at latitudes from about 55 to 58 degrees, equivalent on Earth to Scotland or the tip of South America.

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. What's more, bands and variations in color suggest that the ice contains distinct layers, which could be used to understand changes in Mars' climate over time (the ice sheets themselves likely formed as snow accumulated over time). A scarp likely grows wider and taller as it "retreats", due to sublimation of the ice directly from solid form into water vapour.

"Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need", Byrne said.

The researchers used images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has studied the Martian atmosphere and terrain since 2006, including the history of apparent water flows on or near the surface. It will also help NASA and other agencies plan upcoming rover and human missions to Mars.

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