Mid-latitude glaciers on Mars could supply water to human explorers

Mid-latitude glaciers on Mars could supply water to human explorers
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By requirements, the floor of Mars is the image of desolation. It is not solely irradiated and chilly sufficient to make Antarctica look balmy, however it’s additionally one-thousands times drier than the driest locations on Earth. Nonetheless, beneath the super-arid floor of the Pink Planet, there are ample provides of water ice that would sometime be accessible to human explorers (and even settlers).


That is particularly the case within the mid-latitude area often called Arcadia Planitia, a clean plain positioned in Martian northern lowlands. In line with new research carried out with help from NASA’s Jet Laboratory (JPL), the area exhibits indicators of glaciers and glacier exercise. These findings may show very helpful for the long run human landings and exploration of Mars, to not point out potential settlement.

The examine, which lately appeared within the scientific journal Icarus, was led by Shannon Hibbard—a Ph.D. candidate in geology and planetary science on the of Western Ontario (UWO). She was joined by Dr. Gordon R. Osinski of UWO’s Institute for Earth and House Exploration (IESE), and Etienne Godin, an information scientist on the Heart for Northern Research at Laval College; and Nathan Williams and Matthew Golombek of NASA JPL.

Is There Ice on Mars?

Hypothesis in regards to the existence of ice on Mars goes again centuries however remained unsure till NASA’s Viking missions turned the second and third missions to land on Mars within the 1970s. These famous the presence of atmospheric water vapor and glacier-like options, which included widespread ripples and accumulations of unconsolidated materials (moraines).

Mid-latitude glaciers on Mars could supply water to human explorers
MRO investigating Martian water cycle. Credit score: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

These options are generally related to glacial landscapes right here on Earth. Because it was not but that Mars as soon as had water on its floor, the scientific neighborhood cautiously referred to those options as “viscous circulation options.” And since uncovered water ice sublimates on Mars from the low air strain and publicity to photo voltaic radiation, researchers conjectured that these glaciers would must be protected by a thick layer of regolith.

By 2002, sensor knowledge obtained by the Mars Odyssey orbiter confirmed the presence of subsurface water ice within the mid-latitudes area of Mars. These findings had been confirmed in 2008 by the Phoenix Lander, which famous the presence of subsurface water ice within the northern arctic plain. Then got here the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which detected ample subterranean water ice beneath the flat plains of Arcadia Planitia.

The MRO’s ground-penetrating radar indicated that this ice prolonged from the floor (beneath a layer of mud and particles) downward to a depth of 38 meters (~125 ft). Information offered by these and different missions have gathered knowledge that has allowed scientists to map, catalog, and categorize hundreds of options which might be probably the results of glacier exercise.

Glaciers within the Area

For the sake of their examine, Hibbard and her colleagues mapped out dozens of floor options in Arcadia Planitia, on the lookout for these identical sorts of “sinuous options.” Within the course of, they discovered ripples and furrows in valleys and on hillsides, that are typical wherever ice flowed downhill. Nonetheless, Hubbard and her crew additionally discovered these options in a flat-lying area of Arcadia Planitia that was remoted from any bluffs or slopes.

Mid-latitude glaciers on Mars could supply water to human explorers
water ice on Mars, cool colours are nearer to the floor than heat colours, the outlined field represents the best area to ship for them to dig up water ice. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

This left just one risk, which is that glaciers as soon as flowed throughout these flat areas of the floor as nicely. As Hibbard defined in an interview with GlacierHub:

“Discovering attainable circulation options on this flat-lying area was very thrilling. Earlier research have instructed there’s a buried ice sheet at our examine web site, and our proof of channelized ice inside this ice sheet signifies that there are extra advanced glacial dynamics at hand on Mars.”

To find out what would make this ice sheet circulation, Hibbard and her crew in contrast the circulation options of Arcadia Planitia to related options present in Antarctica’s ice streams—the place areas within the flat ice sheet transfer sooner than their environment. Whereas researchers have no idea the precise trigger of those ice streams, they’ve inferred that it may very well be as a consequence of a mixture of subsurface topography and melting on the backside of the ice sheet.

Within the case of Arcadia Planitia, the ice sheet has stopped flowing since and change into a stagnant ice stream, accumulating a thicker layer of floor particles. These distinctive traits current an necessary risk for future crewed missions to Mars. In brief, may this water ice be extracted for the sake of human consumption?

Mid-latitude glaciers on Mars could supply water to human explorers
An artist’s rendering from NASA HiRISE knowledge of a mid-latitude glacier on Mars, insulated by a floor layer of mud and rock. Positioned at Mesa Wall in Protonilus Mensae on Mars. Credit score: Kevin Gill

Human-Rated Missions

Whereas most glaciers on Mars and their subsurface ice are positioned close to bluffs and on slopes, the Arcadia Planitia glacier types a temperate flat ice sheet that’s close to to the floor. What’s extra, there are few geographical hazards to cope with (similar to floor boulders and particles), which makes it each an excellent touchdown web site and a great spot for in-situ useful resource utilization (ISRU) throughout future human missions.

This units it other than glacial patches which might be nearer to the polar areas, that are simply accessible, however that are extraordinarily chilly in comparison with the mid-latitudes. As Germán Martínez, a workers scientist on the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), mentioned in a press release to GlacierHub:

n basic, it is extra possible to go to low and mid latitudes, the place temperatures are milder and photo voltaic vitality is accessible all year long … in these mid and low latitudes, although, water ice is usually deeper within the subsurface than in polar latitudes.”

What’s extra, the Arcadian ice investigated by Hibbard and her colleagues may very well be extra simply accessible than different recognized water ice deposits at mid-Martian latitudes. So if and when crewed missions change into an everyday incidence on Mars, this ice could show indispensable to astronauts and their habitats, offering every thing from consuming and irrigation water to the uncooked materials for manufacturing gasoline.

In time, the subsurface glacier could also be tapped for an much more bold objective—just like the of Mars! If Mars is ever to change into a hotter and wetter planet (because it was billions of years in the past), then subsurface ice deposits like this one can be completely important to the transition.


Can a brand new sort of glacier on Mars assist future astronauts?


Extra info:
Shannon M. Hibbard et al. Proof for widespread glaciation in Arcadia Planitia, Mars, Icarus (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2020.114298

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