New NASA images show layers of ice peeking out of eroded cliffs.
Underneath the surface of Mars, there is water ice in huge quantities. However, what have remained unknown are the properties of that ice, for instance, the purity of it, how deep it is and the shape it takes on.
This is something that has baffled geologists up to now, and it is something that mission planner who is planning visits to Mars want to know about. They want to know more about the subsurface ice reserves for mining it for drinking, crop growing and for conversion to hydrogen to use as fuel.
The First 20 Meters Of Ice Content Is Uncharacterized
The issue has been that rocks, dirt and other contaminants on the surface level have made it difficult to study the water ice. Mars landers are able only to drill or dig into the first few centimeters of the surface of Mars. Radar has only been able to give researchers an idea of what is lying many meters under the surface. The ice content of geology in-between the first 20 meters is uncharacterized.
Thankfully land erodes with time and this means there is no need to drill or use radar as geologists have only to find a place that has been eroded by time and gain a direct line of sight into the subterranean layers under Mars and the ice that lies there. Scientists have now come across such a site and not just one, with the help of HiRISE, a new camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of NASA, they have found many sites.
Geologists Surprised By How Mineable Water Is On Mars
Colin Dundas, the USGS planetary geologist, presented observations in detail about eight regions on Mars where erosion had taken place and revealed steep cross-sections of underlying ice. What has been surprising is not the volume of water found but how mineable it is. Geologists said that the deposits start at one-meter depth and go down more than 100 meters into the surface of Mars. Researchers have not been able to estimate the quantity of ice on Mars, but they have said that the amount close to the surface is thought to be more extensive than the locations where has been exposed and it does look pure.
NASA said that use of space-based resources is “in-situ resource utilization” and the agency believes that it is going to be essential for survival in deep space. What is of great interest to ISRU planners is the ices depth and ratio of what they call pure ice to that mixed with regolith of Mars. The more pristine that the ice is and the closer it is to the surface, then the least amount of energy it is going to take to extract the ice and be able to use it. While the ice that was found is not crystal clear observations, have shown that the ice is surrendering water into the atmosphere slowly through sublimation. This suggests that sediment and boulders are dislodging as the ice is receding. Some debris is to be expected, and Dundas along with his colleagues thinks that the ice might have originated as snow that fell in waves over many millions of years. They believe that some rocky material could have fallen in; however, the surrounding ice is thought to be clean.
Most Of The Material On Mars Reflects Little Light
The chief scientists for the Mars Program, Richard Zurek, said that on Mars when something is seen, and it is bright, it is usually ice. He went on to say that much of the material that is found on Mars reflects very little light. The albedo readings on the sections that were exposed show that there is some stuff on Mars that is very bright. The readings of the spectrometer have supported that it is water ice and not ice-cemented soil, this would have been a great deal more difficult to convert into water said, Zurek.
All of the sites that have been observed by Dundas and colleagues are located in the upper mid-latitudes between 60 and 55 degrees to the south or north of the equator. This means that temperatures generally drop very low. Many missions to Mars will have restrictions on landing sites to 30 degrees of the equator. Zurek said that if people want to be warm, it is better to visit Hawaii than Alaska.
Rover Will Launch In 2020, Visits To Mars May Be Possible By 2030
When closer to the equator the temperatures are warmer, and it could drive the subsurface ice reserves so much deeper into the ground, and this means they will be more difficult to reach. Zurek said that this is something that needs investigating before bases are put down on Mars. Dundas did say that he did not think that all the exposures have been located at this point and that more might exist close to the equator. The Mars 2020 rover of NASA has been equipped with ground penetrating radar, and this would allow it to probe into the upper layers of Mars surface. The ExoMars rover of the European Space Agency is also ready for a launch in 2020, and it will have a drill to go down to two meters.
There is still time for scientists to find the water ice reservoirs on Mars as it is thought that men will venture back to the Moon before heading into deep space. Timelines that are said to be optimistic for arrival on Mars are somewhere in the 2030s. However, how long people will visit, where they will and what they bring along will depend on the resources that are waiting and how difficult it will be to work to get them.