When most people think of Mars, they think of a barren red desert, lifeless and without water. As it turns out, researchers studying high-resolution photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found massive ice sheets. The team studied 8 locations on the Red Planet where massive landslides had recently occurred, much to their surprise, they discovered ice sheets more than 300 feet thick in some of the studied regions.
“At these locations its quite a thick ice sheet of rather clean ice. There’s certainly some amount of dust and debris in it, and there can be small amounts of salts or other things as well, but what we’re seeing at the scarps are predominately ice,” Colin Dundas, a planetary geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey said in the recently released research paper. He believes the now exposed ice is sublimating into the Martian atmosphere, meaning it is turning from a solid directly into a gas.
Because it is on such steep hillsides or scarps as they are referred to, the researchers can see a cross-section of the ice, they believe the ice is surprisingly pure.
“On Mars, when you see something bright, it usually means ice,” Richard Zurek, a scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told Wired, “but the albedo readings on these exposed sections show that this is very bright stuff, and the spectrometer readings support that this is water ice and not ice-cemented soil, which would be much harder to convert into water as a resource.”
One theory of where the ice sheets came from involves snow in the distant past.
“Something caused it to be deposited and then deposited again,” Dundas said. Researchers are keen to examine a Martian ice core, “That preserved record would be of extreme importance to go back to,” G. Scott Hubbard, a scientist at Stanford University, told Science.
This snowy Mars would have been a very long time ago, perhaps when it was a wetter world and sported its own magnetic field that would have shielded it from the solar wind. The photographed ice is in the midlatitudes about 55 degrees north or south of its equator, meaning it will probably be out of reach for the first batch of humans brave enough to make the 35 million mile journey to Mars.
“If you wanna stay warm, it’s better to be in Hawaii than Alaska,” said Zurek.
Both NASA and The European Space Agency (ESA) have Mars missions slated to launch in 2020. Each exploratory payload will carry rovers capable of collecting more information about subsurface ice. Ground-penetrating radar will be on the NASA unit, and a drill that can dig 7 feet deep on the ESA’s ExoMars rover.