There’s water ice buried below the surface of Mars, and all you’ll need is a shovel to dig some up, according to research published in Geophysical Research Letters this week.
“Our results are consistent with widespread water ice at latitudes as low as 35°N/45°S buried sometimes a few cm below sand‐like material, with high lateral ice depth variability, and correlated with periglacial features,” the abstract reads.
In short, there are spots of Martian water ice hidden below ground at surprisingly shallow depths. "You wouldn't need a backhoe to dig up this ice,” said Sylvain Piqueux, lead author of the study and a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You could use a shovel."
Piqueux and his colleagues from Northern Arizona University, University of Colorado, and the Space Science Institute, all in the US, mapped the presence and depth of water ice across various regions on Mars. Areas near the poles and across the planet’s middle latitude contain the most water ice.
Some of it is locked more than 80 centimetres deep, or more than two and half feet, and some of it is more easily accessible at less than 10 centimetres from the surface. With so little air pressure, any solid ice evaporates to gas so it can only really stay intact underground.
An example of a water ice map on Mars. Purple areas highlight shallow water ice reserves less than 10 centimeters below the ground. Red areas are deeper water ice levels more than 80 centimeters below the ground. The white outline marks an ideal landing spot for astronauts in future Martian missions. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.
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The eggheads built their ice map by studying various data sources taken from instruments aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and its aging Mars Odyssey orbiter. The Mars Climate Sounder on the MRO looks for any shifts in atmospheric temperature, while the Thermal Emission Imaging System on Odyssey searches for any hotspots below the surface to discern the amount of water ice underground.
By combining datasets taken from both devices, as well as information about icy reservoirs that are revealed after meteor impacts spotted by radar, the scientists have managed to estimate the level of water ice buried in the unforgiving dust world. The map will help NASA in its goal to fly astronauts to Mars in the future, as well as Elon Musk's dream of an off-world colony.
When, or if, humans land on Mars, America's space agency will want to pick a landing site that has easy access to water ice, so astronauts can test the viability of extracting it for future use. For example, a particularly promising spot known as Arcadia Planitia, a smooth region in the north, has shallow levels of water ice, lower levels of elevation, and a thicker atmosphere to make landing spacecrafts easier.
"The more we look for near-surface ice, the more we find," said Leslie Tamppari, deputy project scientist of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. "Observing Mars with multiple spacecraft over the course of years continues to provide us with new ways of discovering this ice." ®