Large sheets of water ice lie just beneath the surface of Mars

For the first time, high-resolution photos show the three-dimensional structure of massive ice deposits on Mars. This photo taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a detailed subsection of an icy angled slope on the Red Planet in a better color.

(NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/USGS)

Large deposits of water ice may lurk just below the surface in some regions of Mars, a new study reports.

The new blades seem to contain several layers, which suggests that studying them could shed considerable light on the Red Planet, the climate, the history, the researchers said. And the ice is buried by only a few feet of Mars dirt in places, which means that it is possible to be accessible for future manned missions.

“I am not familiar with the resource-extraction technology, but this may be information that is useful for people,” study lead author Colin Dundas, of the U. S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, told [Photos: The Search for Water on Mars]

Dundas and his colleagues analysed photos captured over the years by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). They identified eight locations where erosion had exposed clearly glaciers, some of which extend 330 feet (100 meters) or more in the Red Planet’s surface.

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These sites are steep, pole-facing slopes in Mars’ midlatitudes, between about 55 and 60 degrees north and south of the equator. The ice-harboring areas sport few craters, which suggests that they are quite young, geologically, the researchers said.

It is interesting that scientists think that Mars’ obliquity — the tilt of the planet of the axis relative to the plane of its orbit — has shifted a fair bit over the past few million years, ranging between 15 and 35 degrees, Dundas said. (The Red Planet’s obliquity is currently about 25 degrees; the Earth is 23.5 degrees.)

“There are already suggestions that, when there is a high slope, the poles get heated much — they are slanted and pointed more at the sun, and so that dispenses ice cream in the direction of the midlatitudes,” Dundas said. “So, what we can see is the evidence that happened in the past.”

Researchers already knew that Mars harbors surface, water ice, and lots of it. For example, MRO’s ground-penetrating Shallow Radar instrument recently, a buried layer of ice covered more land than the state of New Mexico. (NASA’s Phoenix lander also dug up some ice near the Martian north pole in 2008, but it is unclear whether that stuff is part of a large leaf.)

But the newly analyzed HiRISE data give the researchers a more detailed look on such deposits, Dundas said.

The take-home message is, these are nice claims that teach us something about the 3D-structure of the ice, including the ice caps start slow, and also that there’s a fine layers,” he said.

The new study today, published online (Jan. 11) in the journal Science.

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