Possible glacier on Mars could be a gamechanger for human exploration

Signs of a modern glacier have been found near the equator on Mars, which could be a huge boon in the race to land humans on the Red Planet.

Finding sizeable supplies of accessible water is a key aim for teams working towards sending humans to Mars. Previous research has focused on higher latitudes, where the conditions are more suited to stable ice but also more challenging for humans (and robots). 

However, the recent discovery has not found ice itself at the equator – but what looks like a layer of salt covering one.

Researchers from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the Mars Institute have detected what are known as light-toned deposits (LTDs). These deposits, detected using data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are signs of what they call a ‘relict glacier’.

‘What we’ve found is not ice, but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic features of a glacier,’ said lead author Dr Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with SETI and the Mars Institute. ‘What we think happened here is that salt formed on top of a glacier while preserving the shape of the ice below, down to details like crevasse fields and moraine bands.’

The team suggests earlier volcanic activity in the region covered the glacier in ash, pumice and lava blocks, which reacted with the water ice to form a salty crust. Over time erosion has worn away the volcanic layer, exposing the salt deposits.

Similar situations have been observed on Earth. On the Altiplano – the Andean plateau – in South America, glacier ice has been protected from melting under a blanket of salts.

‘The desire to land humans at a location where they might be able to extract water ice from the ground has been pushing mission planners to consider higher latitude sites,’ said Lee.

‘But the latter environments are typically colder and more challenging for humans and robots. If there were equatorial locations where ice might be found at shallow depth, then we’d have the best of both environments – warmer conditions for human exploration and still access to ice.’

The potential glacier is thought to be around 3.7 miles long by 2.5 miles wide, with the coordinates 7° 33′ S, 93° 14′ W – which on Earth is roughly where the Galapagos islands lie. 

Both Nasa and China are working on manned missions to Mars. China is aiming to launch its first mission in 2033, while Nasa is aiming for the late 2030s or early 2040s. 

Last year the agency successfully launched its new spacecraft Orion, which it hopes will carry its Artemis III team to the Moon in 2025 – a first step towards establishing longer-term habitation and a launchpad for interplanetary exploration. Earlier this week it unveiled its new spacesuit for the mission.

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