Ice Crystals Discovered on Mars

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Colin Dundas, a US geologist, has been around for over a decade. The Flagstaff Geological Survey, Arizona, had a schedule daily: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) checked about a dozen high-resolution images every day. Many years ago, a shocking thing came up from the gritty sea on the planet: a pale blue sliver.

Dundas saw this day and then saw steep cliffs, which are rising to a height of 100 meter at seven other locations, and reveal what seems to be like just rock. The finding reveals that large subterranean ice shops bury one to two meters under the soil at surprisingly low Martian latitudes. Dundas, with his co-authors, explains this week’s cliffs in Science: “This ice is larger than previously thought.” Every cliff seems to be a nude glacier with scientists hoping to have an overview into Martian past environments and spaces with a potential source of energy for future bases of humans.

Snow surrounds the poles and the radar on the MRO observed dense, hidden snow signatures across the bottom of the earth. Some researchers proposed that these deposits might be the remains of glaciers which occur when the surface and orbit of the earth were different millions of years ago. Nevertheless, the density of the ice and whether it persists in the pores of Martian soil as relatively pure crystals or as granules, frozen, is unknown.

A decade ago, researchers who used MRO found a related clue: ponds of appearances of pure ice formed by fresh meteorites in the floors of small craters. But the relation of these frozen lakes with submerged glaciers or remote locations was uncertain. It was not obvious. Dundas and his colleagues were able to look across the glaciers on the ice cliffs and slowly returned and saw how they were evolving over the course of time.

The ice remained during the Martian summer when any ephemeral snow vaporised. The MRO collected some rock boulders last year from one of its cliffs, indicating that they had been extracted from a large deposit of ice by rapid erosion. Evidently the near-surface ice and the large subsurface deposits are one and the same, says Ali Bramson, a co-author and graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It stretches almost to the entire surface this dark, dense and pure rock.”

Thick bands of ice (blue) have been spotted in steep cliff faces. NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/USGS

Drilling and retrieving a core from one of these deposits would provide Geologists with a wealth of information about the past martian atmosphere, says G. Scott Hubbard, a research physicist in Palo Alto, California at Stanford University. “It would be extremely important to get back to this stored archive,” he says.

Such areas are also’ really interesting’ for potential human bases, according to Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Technology at the Colorado College of the Mines in Golden. Water is an important resource for astronauts as it could be used to produce oxygen for ventilation and methana, a spacecraft propellant in combination with carbon-dioxide, the main ingredient of Mars ‘ atmosphere. And even if scientists believed that there were subsurface glaciers, they would only be a helpful resource if only a few meters below the water. Abbud-Madrid says the ice cliffs offer plenty of open rock.

The cliffs are all located at 55 ° north and south latitude, but in Martian winter they are cold and dark— unpromising latitudes for a human base of solar power. The NASA research was therefore restricted to areas fewer than 50 ° from the equator. Already Hubbard wants to find identical cliffs nearer the equator through NASA’s human exploration plan.

NASA images show ‘underground ice cliffs’ on Mars


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