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July 18, 2024

Mars Express Orbiter Discovers Vast Reservoirs of Ice Water Under Mars’ Equator

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Jan 22, 2024

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express orbiter has made a groundbreaking discovery of substantial ice water deposits buried under the red planet’s equator. This revelation provides further evidence that water was once abundant on Mars and raises hopes that future human exploration and settlement may be possible.

Overview of Discovery

Using its MARSIS radar instrument, the Mars Express detected a patch of unusual terrain, called the Medusae Fossae Formation, near the equator between the Tharsis and Elysium volcanic regions [1]. Analysis of the data indicates an extensive slab of water ice estimated to be around 3.7 kilometers thick buried just 2 meters under the surface [2]. The deposit spans an area comparable to that of Iceland and potentially contains so much ice that if melted, it could cover the entire planet under a water layer 5 meters deep [3].

The discovery is astonishing given ice was previously only known to exist at Mars’ polar caps and was not expected this close to the equator where temperatures can reach a scorching 20°C during summer [4]. However, the deposit lies in a region where very fine dust covers a porous rock matrix, allowing ice to remain trapped and insulated despite the heat [5]. The stability and sheer volume of this buried ice has profound implications for understanding Mars’ past climate and its future exploration.

Significance for Mars’ Climate History

The identified ice water deposit provides compelling evidence that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere to keep global temperatures higher, allowing liquid water to likely flow freely across its surface [6]. Most of this atmosphere was subsequently lost to space, causing surface water to freeze. The fact remnants have persisted in equilibrium for hundreds of millions of years despite Mars’ current dry and cold conditions is remarkable [7].

This discovery follows detections of hydrated salts and clays from orbital spectrometry, proving past water alteration processes occurred [8]. While frozen water near the poles was expected, equatorial ice on this scale points to Mars previously having small oceans or lakes able to support life [9]. Exact details on how so much water accumulated remains unknown, but volcanic eruptions or asteroids may have unleashed floods that quickly froze [10]. Determining the origin, age and precise composition of this buried ice through further observations and modeling will reveal much about Mars’ climatic evolution.

Implications for Human Exploration

The identified ice deposit presents a potentially vital resource to enable extended human occupation and exploration across Mars [11]. Located at lower latitudes, the reservoir lies in a more accessible and thermally hospitable region versus the poles. The buried ice could theoretically meet settlement needs for drinking water, oxygen, rocket fuel production and radiation shielding [12].

Associated volcanic ash within the ice could also supply minerals for growing food and manufacturing equipment using 3D printing [13]. Future crewed missions landing near Mars’ equator would benefit greatly from having this abundance of water nearby to locally exploit, vastly improving chances for sustainability [14]. Accessing the ice represents an exciting target for subsurface drilling and could drive the selection of initial human landing sites.

Resource Potential Application
Water Drinking, washing, oxygen production via electrolysis
Ice Radiation shielding, structural construction material via sintering
Hydrated salts Crop nutrient solutions for growing food
Clay minerals Raw input material for 3D printing habitats and tools

Table: Possible resources from equatorial ice deposits supporting human exploration

Before utilization occurs, further characterization is needed on the buried ice’s readiness for extraction, usage and replenishment rates [15]. Technology demonstrations will be vital to prove water can be reliably acquired. NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission launching in 2028 provides a timely opportunity to evaluate polar ice mining concepts at the Moon, increasing confidence for adopting similar capabilities on Mars later this decade [16].

Outlook for Further Discoveries

This breakthrough illustrates that despite decades of observations, Mars can still deliver major surprises about its past habitability and resources. It crucially raises optimism more such reservoirs exist undiscovered across extensive shallow dust-covered plains elsewhere on Mars [17]. Ongoing analysis of historical data plus new radar soundings globally may unveil similar pockets of subterranean ice.

Upcoming ESA and NASA rover missions to collect samples for Earth return will also analyze ice deposits as never before to quantify past climate conditions and potential support for life [18]. This recent discovery sets the stage for an exciting new chapter in Mars exploration that may ultimately see astronauts leverage equatorial ice to successfully establish the first extraterrestrial human settlement.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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