While scientists have yet to find flowing water on Mars, they have found an abundance of ice—from the Red Planet's polar ice caps to its frosty soil. These patches of frozen water could hold clues to what Mars looked like in the past and may be a lifeline for future human explorers. Now, a recent study reports that a newly discovered underground ice deposit could hold enough frozen water to fill Lake Superior, and it may be close enough to the surface for future astronauts to melt for water.
NASA researchers spotted the ice deposit in a region known as “Utopia Planitia,” or “Plains of Paradise.” Located about halfway between Mars’ equator and its north pole, the ice deposit sits roughly 3 to 33 feet below the surface and covers an area larger than New Mexico, Mike Wall reports for Space.com.
"This deposit probably formed as snowfall accumulating into an ice sheet mixed with dust during a period in Mars history when the planet's axis was more tilted than it is today," Cassie Stuurman, a researcher with the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas, Austin, says in a statement.
Ranging from around 260 to 560 feet thick, the Utopia ice sheet appears to be a mixture of dirt and water ice. While most of the water that likely once covered much of the Red Planet’s surface evaporated long ago, this deposit seems to have stuck around thanks to its underground location, which shields it from the surface’s harsh climate, Wall reports.
The ice sheet also has the potential to provide a window into Mars' past. While the Utopia Planitia ice sheet is currently frozen solid, the fact that the ice may have originated as snow suggests that the region could have been a bit warmer at some point in the past, David Grossman reports for Popular Mechanics. Taking samples of the ice during future Mars missions could give scientists a unique glimpse into the history of the Red Planet’s climate—something that remains mysterious.
"It's important to expand what we know about the distribution and quantity of Martian water," Leslie Tamppari, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Deputy Project Scientist, says in a statement. "We know early Mars had enough liquid water on the surface for rivers and lakes. Where did it go? Much of it left the planet from the top of the atmosphere. Other missions have been examining that process. But there's also a large quantity that is now underground ice, and we want to keep learning more about that."
The fact that this ice deposit is so close to the surface makes it particularly tempting as a valuable resources for the survival of future astronauts as they explore the Red Planet. Ready access to water from ice means one less thing to worry about in planning future missions, Martha Henriques reports for International Business Times UK.
“We don’t understand fully why ice has built up in some areas of the Martian surface and not in others,” University of Texas researcher and study author Joe Levy says in a statement. “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.”
NASA still has a long way to go before it will be ready to send human explorers to visit Mars in person. But with this site in mind, it could make choosing a future landing spot a little bit easier.