NASA scientists say steep slopes on Mars reveal structure of buried ice

Tricia Pearson
January 13, 2018

Then in 2016, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered the water ice exposed by the erosion in the mid-latitudes of Mars. The scientists who tend that instrument spotted patches of blue on the red planet, chose to look more closely and eventually found eight patches of ice.

"These shallow depths make the ice sheets potentially accessible to future exploration", the authors wrote, "and the scarps present cross-sections of these ices that record past episodes of ice deposition on Mars".

According to the study, the sheets are located beneath the surface and they contain distinct layers. All these things indicate that Mars was a watery planet in its initial phase and now it has become a dry and icy planet. Over the years, MRO has built up a comprehensive catalog of features on the Martian surface, many of them imaged from multiple angles.

The researchers investigated eight locations on Mars and found thick deposits cover broad regions of the Martian mid-latitudes with a smooth mantle.

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.

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The bluish slopes were rather steep, having a slope that approached 55 degrees in some cases. But details about the thickness of the ice, its composition and its layering have been hard to gauge-until now. In many areas, it lies beneath just a meter or two of dirt. That's thick enough for the orbiting camera to resolve different colored bands within the material.

The ice probably started as snowfall that compacted into massive fractured layers. Although previous studies made scientists ware of the ice deposits on the ice, the latest study can provide vital information about the thickness, layering, and purity of ice on the red planet. The scientists identified eighth such deposits of ice sheet exposed by erosions. "So it doesn't actually have to be liquid water in which life can exist, and it would be very interesting to look at where these ice scarps are melting", Professor George said. The researchers estimate that this is causing the loss of about a millimeter a year, which suggests that the ice sheets were once considerably larger than they are today.

While the existence of water ice underneath the surface of Mars increases the possibility of colonizing the planet someday, it still doesn't guarantee anything.

Although ice has always been known to exist on Mars, a better understanding of its depth and location could be vital to future human explorers, said the report in the U.S. journal Science.

'You don't see a high-tech solution, ' Byrne added. 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.

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