Steep slopes on Mars reveal structure of buried ice

Olive Hawkins
January 13, 2018

The ice could be a useful source of water for future missions to Mars.

The ice was likely deposited as snow long ago.

At this wedge-shaped pit on Mars, the steep slope (or scarp) at the northern edge (toward the top of the image) exposes a cross-section of a thick sheet of underground water ice.

According to new research, a sizable portion of this water ice is very near the surface, only a few feet below in some places.

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According to new research published in Science water exists on Mars at depths of around 3 to 6 feet below the surface, and extends across vast sheets measuring 325 feet or more which is much shallower than what has been shown by researchers before. Because the ice is only visible where surface soil has been removed, Dundas et al. say it is likely that ice near the surface is even more extensive than detected in this study.

Although HiRISE images appear black and white when viewed separately, each image is taken using a special filter, which focuses on one part of the spectrum of light. The colour section in the middle, is a combination of images, that filter for red, near-infrared and blue-green wavelengths of light. (We've previously known about shallow subsurface ice from multiple lines of evidence). The researchers didn't leave this to simple colour interpretation, though.

The surface of the planet had been mapped by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in much detail and Dundas and his colleagues used its pictures to locate exposed ice in small craters, glaciers and ice sheets. "Previous ideas for extracting human-usable water from Mars were to pull it from the very dry atmosphere or to break down water-containing rocks", said planetary scientist Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, a co-author of the study in the journal Science. The 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. "You don't see a high-tech solution [.] You can go out with a bucket and shovel and just collect as much water as you need". The water could be used for drinking and potentially conversion into oxygen to breathe.

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