Credit: PSI

Taking the plunge to map potential water resources on Mars is the SWIM project.

The Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) effort is cross-cutting. Results can help the ongoing search for signs of life on Mars, as well as identify future landing sites for human expeditions.

Mapping products

SWIM is a project led by Planetary Science Institute (PSI) scientists in Tucson, Arizona.

“The goal of the SWIM project is to provide a set of mapping products using existing spacecraft data that delineate subsurface ice in the mid-latitudes of Mars,” said Gareth Morgan, a leader of the PSI SWIM team.

The Subsurface Water Ice Mapping project is currently studying large expanses of the northern hemisphere of Mars to identify potential shallow water-ice resources. Work is focused in the four outlined regions, all of which exhibit evidence of ice such as Lineated Valley Fill (LVF) and Lobate Debris Aprons (LDA).
Credit: Gareth Morgan

The SWIM team is producing new maps of the likelihood of subsurface ice deposits over such locales as “Arcadia Planitia” and other low elevation regions across the Martian Northern Hemisphere: “Acidalia,” “Onilus,” and “Utopia.”

To chart these regions a combination of radar, thermal, neutron, altimetry, and image data from several Mars-orbiting spacecraft will be used.

Radar returns

The team is also employing newly developed techniques that include using radar returns to infer the presence of ice within the top 16 feet (5 meters) of the crust and applying advanced radar processing to improve resolution at depth and to estimate the purity of ice in the subsurface.

“Water ice will be a critical resource for human explorers on Mars, not only for life support but also for generating fuel to power equipment on the ground and rockets for the return journey to Earth,” said PSI’s SWIM team leader, Nathaniel Putzig.

Candidate SpaceX Red Dragon landing spot – Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain on Mars that appears to have large quantities of ice near the surface.
Credit: University of Arizona/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).

“Maps that identify the nature and availability of potential water resources will help determine where humanity will establish its first outposts on Mars,” Putzig added in a PSI press statement.

SpaceX landing site?

Interestingly, Arcadia Planitia has been identified by SpaceX as a potential landing site for the firm’s proposed Red Dragon program. Paul Wooster, lead in the technical development of SpaceX’s Mars architecture and vehicles — including both Red Dragon and human-scale systems — has said that choosing a site is driven by the quantity of water the firm is looking for…and that’s thousands of tons.

SpaceX Red Dragon on Mars.
Credit: SpaceX

One such Red Dragon touchdown place that is “quite promising” Wooster has stated in the past, is Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain on Mars that appears to have large quantities of ice near the surface.

Meanwhile, results from each of the SWIM team study regions will be integrated into a single northern hemisphere ice consistency map by the end of April 2019. Funding for this project came to PSI from the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, supported by NASA.

For more information on the SWIM project, go to:

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