Cliffs of pure, blue water-ice spotted just below Mars' surface

Taylor Byrd
January 13, 2018

Whilst water ice is known to be present in some locations on Mars, many questions remain about its layering, thickness, purity, and extent.

These cliffs are "rare peeks into the subsurface of Mars, giving us access to an undisturbed slice through Mars' ice in the mid-latitudes - a fantastic find!" said Susan Conway, a planetary scientist at the University of Nantes in France who was not involved with this research. And we need water ice on Mars because we can combine it with the Carbon dioxide that's very abundant in the atmosphere, and that gives us two very important things for future manned habitability of Mars.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been beaming back high-resolution images of the planet for over a decade now, and for most of the time, nothing too special pops up.

Aside from potentially aiding in human exploration of Mars, the newly-mapped ice sheets could also unlock secrets hidden in Mars' past.

"There've been suggestions that, when there's high obliquity, the poles get heated a lot-they're tilted over and pointed more at the sun, and so that redistributes ice toward the midlatitudes", Colin Dundas, of the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona told Wall of Space.com.

Mars clearly had a watery past, and it's expected that much of the water is still on the planet. Interestingly, the sheets of water ice on Mars are located under just a few feet of dirt in places. These scarps are thought to be formed by a process called sublimation, where ice is lost to the atmosphere by transformation into water vapor without ever turning into liquid. But they hadn't seen exposed ice on other parts of the planet's surface before. According to an in-depth analysis led by the USGS, the images reveal never-before-observed details about the ice sheets, including that some begin just a few feet below the Martian surface and extend to depths greater than 300 feet.

'Here we have what we think is nearly pure water ice buried just below the surface. The ice seems to be relatively pure and some of the deposits are only about a meter below the surface, writes Robbie Gonzalez of Wired. All these things indicate that Mars was a watery planet in its initial phase and now it has become a dry and icy planet.

Planetary scientists around the world are finding hope in that this could, in fact, be the clue to pure ice.

In 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was launched to explore Mars. Continuing to study those sheets could help researchers learn more about the climate history of the planet.

For the first time, high-resolution images show the three-dimensional structure of massive ice deposits on Mars. "So it doesn't actually have to be liquid water in which life can exist, and it would be very interesting to look at where these ice scarps are melting", Professor George said.

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