Credit: NASA

Water is the elixir of life. On Mars, utilizing subsurface frozen water ice can help prolong future human exploration of the Red Planet.

New research spotlights potential buried ice deposits to support the selection of human landing sites in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars.

The work is an output of the Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) project of the Planetary Science Institute. 

Credit: Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) project

Orbital datasets

SWIM researchers have integrated orbital datasets from several NASA spacecraft – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Global Surveyor – also tapping into new data-processing techniques.

The lowdown of their ground work is quantifying the consistency of multiple, independent data sources with the presence of ice on that distant world.

The research – “Availability of subsurface water-ice resources in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars” – has just been published as a Perspective in the journal, Nature Astronomy.

Buried ice deposits

“The goal of SWIM is to provide maps of potential buried ice deposits to support the selection of human landing sites. Ice is a critical resource that has many uses, like the generation of water for human consumption, growing plants for food, and for the generation of methane fuel and breathable air. But the most important is to provide fuel for the return trip home to Earth,” said Gareth Morgan, a Planetary Science Institute senior scientist and lead author of the new research paper.  

Two views of the northern hemisphere of Mars (orthographic projection centered on the north pole), both with a grey background of shaded relief. On the left, the light grey shading shows the northern ice stability zone, which overlaps with the purple shading of the SWIM study region. On the right, the blue-grey-red shading shows where the SWIM study found evidence for the presence (blue) or absence (red) of buried ice. The intensity of the colors reflect the degree of agreement (or consistency) exhibited by all of the data sets used by the project.
Credit: Gareth A. Morgan, et al.

SWIMing in data

The SWIM team focused on a significant portion of the northern hemisphere of Mars, finding that broad regions of the mid-latitudes, equatorward of the present-day northern ice-stability zone, exhibit evidence for ice. The detected ice is buried at depths ranging from a few centimeters to about 1 kilometer, explains a PSI statement.

“We provide a hemispheric perspective of ice distribution to support initial landing-site studies and enable the community to explore the range of Martian terrains that host ice,” Morgan said.

According to the paper, “composite ice-consistency maps indicate that the broad plains of Arcadia and the extensive glacial networks across Deuteronilus Mensae match the greatest number of remote-sensing criteria for accessible ice-rich, subsurface material situated equatorwards of the contemporary ice-stability zone.”

Candidate impact site with possible ice exposure within Arcadia. Imaged by NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Ice-exposing impacts

The validity of the team’s ice consistency methodology and map products was shown when the team compared their results with the locations of fresh, ice-exposing impacts that have recently been detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. For instance, the ejecta blankets of impact craters in eastern Utopia Planitia, including the 100-km-diameter Mie crater, though the most southern (roughly 35 degrees N) elevated “Ci” (ice consistency) values are correlated with glacial features within Deuteronilus Mensae.

As new impacts are detected, the team will continue to compare them to the SWIM maps.

Missing piece of the puzzle

As the paper notes, safely delivering humans to Mars and ensuring their survival requires many other considerations beyond tapping into local water resources, such as landing-site safety and solar/thermal specifications.

That said, the SWIM work is diving into a vital missing piece of the puzzle for human-mission planners: the location and properties of available water-ice resources.

Credit: NASA

“The good news is that Mars is an icy planet. The challenge is locating ice at a latitude that is conducive for a human landing site,” Morgan said. Earlier studies, he points out, have shown that ice buried within 10-feet (3 meters) of the surface should be stable in the current climate at latitudes above 50 degrees in each hemisphere. However, these regions are colder and subject to long seasons of extended night. Lower latitudes are warmer, have a manageable length of night and lots of solar radiation for power generation.

“In a nutshell, SWIM is all about reconciling the need for ice with the need for plenty of sunshine,” Morgan said.

To access “Availability of subsurface water-ice resources in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars,” go to:

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