- NASA scientists discovered a vast region of Mars where water ice sits just an inch below the surface.
- Because that area is not at the planet’s poles or equator, it offers a promising place to land astronauts someday.
- Landing near accessible stores of ice is crucial because astronauts on Mars would need a way to make drinking water and to create rocket fuel for the journey back to Earth.
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NASA scientists just discovered a vast region of Mars where water ice sits just an inch below the surface.
It could be the perfect place for astronauts to land, since any crew that touches down on the red planet would have to mine resources there, and water is the most important one. Mars astronauts will need to dig up ice to make drinking water and to create rocket fuel for the journey back to Earth – when you break down water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter can be used to make fuel.
“Bringing your own water from Earth would be incredibly expensive,” Sylvain Piqueux, the NASA planetary scientist who led the research, told Business Insider. “Everything that you don’t have to bring with you leaves more room for a science experiment or additional engineering capabilities.”
‘If you bring a rake or a shovel, you could access it’
Piqueux and his team discovered the ice field when they examined data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter.
To their surprise, this ice appears to be as little as an inch below the planet’s surface.
“If you bring a rake or a shovel, you could access it. You wouldn’t need to bring heavy equipment to access it,” Piqueux said. “In this case, the surprise was that ice was right there, so shallow.”
Planning for a serious digging operation as part of any space mission requires heavy equipment, which means additional fuel would be needed for a launch. Plus, digging on Mars isn’t easy, as the InSight lander‘s heat probe discovered when it started trying to do that in February. The so-called “mole” instrument is supposed to dig 16 feet down, but it only made a few inches of progress before getting stuck.
Then the mole mysteriously popped out of its hole in October. It’s been unable to dig deeper ever since.
NASA found water ice in an unexpected place
Mars has lots of surface water ice at its poles. But those poles aren’t a great place to send astronauts, since they’re freezing cold and shrouded in darkness for half the year.
NASA doesn’t want to land astronauts at a spot near the planet’s equator, either, because it’s too warm for ice to exist. Unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a thick enough atmosphere to host liquid water. When ice gets too warm, the water skips the liquid stage altogether and simply evaporates.
But the subsurface ice that Piqueux discovered is in a temperate area that’s just right for astronauts to land.
“Part of the excitement of this work is that we found ice in mid-latitudes,” Piqueux said. “We knew that there was ice potentially at those latitudes from other instruments, but we also thought that it would be located much deeper.”
Piqueux thinks this ice may have come from an ancient snowfall that was followed by a dust storm, which quickly blanketed the snow. That thin layer of dust could have preserved the frozen water for billions of years.
Now that NASA researchers have pinpointed this area with plentiful water resources, they can start investigating potential landing sites there. They’ll search for a more specific place that’s safe for humans to land and also offers new opportunities for studying Mars’ surface and potential to host alien life.
“It’s the beginning of putting together those parts of the puzzle for Mars,” Piqueux said.