A team of scientists have discovered ice buried close to Mars’ equator, in a region where there isn’t supposed to be any water at all.
The team, led by post-doctoral researcher Jack Wilson from John Hopkins University, made the exciting find after re-examining old images from NASA archives.
Current understanding of Mars is based on the idea of water not being thermodynamically stable at low altitudes. However, this new insight really could change everything…
— Mark Hilverda (@markhilverda) October 2, 2017
The archived images were taken between the years 2002 and 2009, gathered by neutron spectrometer instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
Wilson and his team were cleverly able to reduce blurring and ‘noise’ from the images, dramatically enhancing spatial resolution from 320 miles to just 180 miles (520 kilometers to 290 kilometers).
This allowed for a much clearer, closer perspective of the red planet than the image had previously allowed.
Speaking with NASA, Wilson made the following statement:
It was as if we’d cut the spacecraft’s orbital altitude in half, and it gave us a much better view of what’s happening on the surface.
— Maxime Duprez (@maximaxoo) October 1, 2017
Surprisingly high levels of hydrogen were detected around parts of the equator. At high latitudes, this is known to signify buried water ice.
Although the spectrometer cannot detect water in a direct sense, it can measure neurons in such a way that scientists can measure hydrogen abundance, inferring the presence of water and other hydrogen producing substances.
Back in 2002, Mars Odyssey made an initial huge discovery when abundant hydrogen was found just underneath the at high latitudes. This was confirmed to be water ice in 2008.
However, until this latest discovery, it has not been thought possible to find water ice at low altitudes. Excess hydrogen traces in this region had previously been explained away as evidence of hydrated minerals.
— SmithsonianAirSpace (@airandspace) September 28, 2017
The presence of this water ice is quite mysterious. Some scientists have theorised the water ice is being held there by a mixture of ice and dust which has cycled through the atmosphere, back when Mars’ axial tilt was greater.
However, Wilson isn’t convinced, pointing out how any such ice deposits would be long gone, even if you take into account a protective covering of dust.
According to Wilson, the answer could lie with ‘deposits of hydrated salts’:
Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain.
So for now, the signature remains a mystery worthy of further study, and Mars continues to surprise us.
Interestingly, this discovery may have major implications for any future Mars expeditions. Brave astronauts could make use of accessible natural resources on Mars, both for water supply and for the production of hydrogen fuel.
As a result, there would be a vast reduction in the mass delivered by rockets, with the potential to drastically change the way Mars missions are conducted in the future.
Looks like I'll be painting Mars with ice then! Will start sculpting the composition tonight. ? https://t.co/VI6T5VkYf5
— Kelly Stanford (@TheLabArtist) September 24, 2017
One key question remains. Could there have once been cuddly, three eyed Martian polar bears frolicking around on the red planet?
It’s a nice thought…
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.