Finding blue on Red Planet: Mars hides thick sheets of ice just below the surface

Planetary scientists say a new analysis of data shows that thick ice sheetshide just below parts of the surface of Mars. MUST CREDIT: Photo by NASA

By Ben Guarino | Washington Post

The slope rises as high as London’s Big Ben tower. Beneath its ruddy layer of dirt is a sheet of ice 300 feet thick that gives the landscape a blue-black hue. If such a scene sounds otherworldly, it is. To visit it, you’ll have to travel to Mars.

Planetary scientists say a new analysis of data shows that thick ice sheets hide just below parts of the surface of Mars. NASA)

Planetary scientists located eight of these geological features, called scarps, on the Red Planet. An analysis of the scarps revealed that thick ice hides just below the surface. This ice, the researchers say, could be a tempting target for future exploration — as well as a valuable resource for Earthlings camped out on Mars.

“We’ve found a new window into the ice for study, which we hope will be of interest to those interested in all aspects of ice on Mars and its history,” said Colin Dundas, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona and an author of a report published Thursday in the journal Science.

It is not news that Mars is icy. In 2001, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft arrived at the planet and began snooping for chemical signatures of ice. The craft’s gamma-ray spectrometer found telltale hydrogen, which indicated Mars had enormous amounts of ice. As much as a third of the Martian surface contains shallow ice. But remotely sensing elements such as hydrogen could not reveal the depth and makeup of the ice.

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The newer Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mapped the surface in greater detail. Dundas and his colleagues used its pictures to locate exposed ice in small craters, glaciers and ice sheets. “The high-resolution data has greatly improved our understanding of various ice-related land forms,” he said.

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.

Open University’s Matt Balme, a planetary scientist in Britain who did not participate in this study, said the key findings were the color images of a bluish tint. That indicates a sub-layer that is “somehow compositionally different” than the red dirt. It is unlikely that the frozen sheets are a mix of water and soil. “If the conclusions of the paper are correct,” he said, “you’re looking at something that’s almost pure ice.”

The scarps exist along the planet’s middle latitudes, ruling out glaciers that migrated from the poles. The study authors propose that these ice sheets formed when thick snows blanketed Mars. Balme agreed that snowfall probably created the ice over a period of a few thousand years.

“We considered the possibility that we were seeing surface frost,” Dundas said, “but the ice signatures …read more

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