We've known for years that there is at least some water ice on Mars, but it's been hard to pin down where it is and how easy it would be to extract. No one is holding their breath that they will find a lake of Evian bubbling up, but now scientists found what may be the next best thing - a clear view of several layers of water ice deposited right under the surface. Still, scientists remain optimistic and are determined to send the first manned mission to Mars by 2030. "In the mid-latitudes, it's normally covered by a blanket of dust or regolith", loose bits of rock atop a layer of bedrock, said research geologist Colin Dundas of the US Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, who led the study.
"This kind of ice is more widespread than previously thought", Dundas told Science.
The new study not only suggests that underground water ice lies under a thin covering over wide areas, it also identifies eight sites where ice is directly accessible, at latitudes with less hostile conditions than at Mars' polar ice caps.
On one of the scarps, a number of boulders have fallen out as the ice retreats.
Analyzing these features with a filter that accentuates colors, a team of researchers saw something notable for the Red Planet: a number of them had a distinctively blue color. Beneath its ruddy layer of dirt is a sheet of ice 300 feet thick that gives the landscape a blue-black hue. At each of these locations, they found thick shelves of relatively pure water ice located as little as 3.3 feet (1 meter) below the planet's surface.
However, if a sample could be drilled from one of the glaciers, researchers could learn plenty about Mars' climate history and the potential for life on Earth's neighboring planet.
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"What this study shows is that there is abundant water trapped just beneath the surface of Mars", said Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology.
A photo of a crater on Mars taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The remarkable ice cliffs appear to contain distinct layers, which could preserve a record of Mars' past climate, according to the report. Streaks on images of the surface of Mars, thought to be water, were past year revealed to be just drifts of sand. In the future, if there will be crewed missions, those sheets could be easily accessible.
Scientists hope that the ice sheets' proximity to the surface will facilitate their being studied using robots. The ice deposits likely originated as snowfall during Mars' high-obliquity periods and have now compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice. The slopes are probably being continuously exposed as the ice sublimates into the Martian atmosphere, likely to cycle up to the poles and end up frozen there.
'There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars'.