Proving endless theories correct, scientists have now discovered vast stores of ice on Mars — enough to support the hypothesis the orb’s middle latitudes experienced sporadic, massive snowfalls millions of years ago — and sufficient in quantity to potentially “be a useful source of water for future human exploration of the red planet.”
“Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need,” asserted Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and an author of the study — published in the journal Science — as cited by NBC News.
According to the paper’s abstract, the “ice deposits likely originated as snowfall during Mars’ high-obliquity periods and have now compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice.”
High-resolution images of the planet’s surface were captured by the scientists using U.S. satellites — which evinced eight enormous ice deposits, some stretching as far below the surface as one-hundred meters (roughly 330 feet).
“The discovery reported today gives us surprising windows where we can see right into these thick underground sheets of ice,” Byrne continued. “It’s like having one of those ant farms where you can see through the glass on the side to learn about what’s usually hidden beneath the ground.”
Colin Dundas, co-discoverer of the ice sheets, enthused, “This is a new window into ground ice on Mars.”
“Scientists have long theorized that reserves of water ice are locked underground on Mars. In 2002, the NASA Odyssey mission scanned the planet from orbit and detected signs of shallow ground ice at high latitudes. In 2008, the NASA Phoenix mission dug up water ice at its landing site near the Martian north pole.
“And in late 2016, scientists using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) found a buried ice sheet at Mars’s mid-latitudes that holds about as much water as Lake Superior. But until Dundas’s study, published [January 11] in Science, scientists struggled to understand the extent and accessibility of Mars’s subsurface ice layers.”
Found at Mars’ equivalent latitudes to Scotland or the southernmost tip of South America, the location of the colossal ice shelves in a ‘less hostile environment’ than the Martian polar caps makes accessing the stores a viable prospect.
While the water ice could be found deep beneath the surface — in as-yet impractical depths for mining given current technologies — that large stockpiles rest, in places, just feet from the top is both a welcome surprise and possible catalyst for increased attention to Mars exploration and more.
Researchers from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, the nonprofit Planetary Science Institute, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Texas received funding from NASA to participate in the study, according to NBC.
“It’s looking more encouraging that water ice could be available at depths shallow enough that could be used as resources for human missions to Mars,” Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, told National Geographic.
While the findings preliminarily confirm the scope and size of Martian ice sheets, the discovery only amplifies interest in Earth’s neighbor and how a new planet could someday be home to human explorers — or even colonizers.
Whether human beings will ultimately come to live on Mars by choice, as an appealing if radically different option, or due to disaster resultant of human error, of course, cannot be predicted.
Images: Featured image: Photograph By NASA, JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona. NASA / AFP – Getty Images file