This image is an artist's concept of a view looking down on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The spacecraft is pictured using its Shallow Subsurface Radar instrument (SHARAD) to "look" under the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

This image is an artist’s concept of a view looking down on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The spacecraft is pictured using its Shallow Subsurface Radar instrument (SHARAD) to “look” under the surface of Mars.
Credit: NASA/JPL

New research is not only advancing our understanding about Mars’ history but has identified a possible resource for future expeditionary crews to the Red Planet.

Thanks to hundreds of overhead passes with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument, data accumulated indicates that about as much water as the volume of Lake Superior lies in a thick layer beneath a portion of Utopia Planitia.

This vertically exaggerated view shows scalloped depressions in Mars' Utopia Planitia region, one of the area's distinctive textures that prompted researchers to check for underground ice, using ground-penetrating radar aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This vertically exaggerated view shows scalloped depressions in Mars’ Utopia Planitia region, one of the area’s distinctive textures that prompted researchers to check for underground ice, using ground-penetrating radar aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Deposit thickness

According to a statement from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory released today:

The deposit is more extensive in area than the state of New Mexico.

The deposit ranges in thickness from about 260 feet (80 meters) to about 560 feet (170 meters), with a composition that’s 50 to 85 percent water ice, mixed with dust or larger rocky particles.

A team of scientists led by The University of Texas at Austin made the subsurface find using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Plains of paradise

By the way, the name Utopia Planitia translates loosely as the “plains of paradise.”

These two images show Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument data from two tracks in a part of Mars' Utopia Planitia region where the orbiting, ground-penetrating radar on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected subsurface deposits rich in water ice. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Rome/ASI/PSI

These two images show Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument data from two tracks in a part of Mars’ Utopia Planitia region where the orbiting, ground-penetrating radar on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected subsurface deposits rich in water ice.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Rome/ASI/PSI

The newly surveyed ice deposit spans latitudes from 39 to 49 degrees within the plains. It represents less than one percent of all known water ice on Mars, but it more than doubles the volume of thick, buried ice sheets known in the northern plains.

Ice deposits close to the surface are being considered as a resource for astronauts. However, far more work will be needed to appreciate the quality of the ice deposits, including the types of machinery to extract and successfully process this resource.

Additionally, plans are now being blueprinted for a future Mars orbiter that totes a more powerful radar system. This orbiter, perhaps developed as an international project, would identify global resources on the red planet useful for a sustained humans-on-Mars effort.

Joe Levy of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, a co-author of the new study, explained in a press statement:

“The ice deposits in Utopia Planitia aren’t just an exploration resource. They’re also one of the most accessible climate change records on Mars,” he said. “We don’t understand fully why ice has built up in some areas of the Martian surface and not in others. Sampling and using this ice with a future mission could help keep astronauts alive, while also helping them unlock the secrets of Martian ice ages.”

MRO’s SHARAD

SHARAD is one of six science instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began its prime science phase 10 years ago this month.

The Italian Space Agency provided the SHARAD instrument and Sapienza University of Rome leads its operations. The Planetary Science Institute, based in Tucson, Arizona, leads U.S. involvement in SHARAD. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the orbiter mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft and supports its operations.

For the research paper carried in the journal Geophysical Research Letters go to:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016GL070138/full

The release from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, go to:

https://news.utexas.edu/2016/11/22/mars-ice-deposit-holds-as-much-water-as-lake-superior

 

 

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