A recently-discovered cache of subsurface water ice on Mars may very well be the key to the success of future manned missions to the Red Planet, serving as an oasis for the astronauts who are charged with establishing a colony or outpost on the barren world, experts warn.
The ice deposits, which were discovered beneath a 3 to 33-foot thick layer of soil in the region known as Utopia Planitia earlier this month, are said to be between 260 feet and 560 feet thick, roughly equal in volume to Lake Superior, and larger than the state of New Mexico.
First detected by Cassie Stuurman of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and her colleagues using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument, the ice deposits is believed to have between 50% and 85% water composition and is located roughly halfway between the Martian equator and the north pole, 39 degrees to 49 degrees latitude.
While the discovery of the ice deposits was initially treated as potentially good news for those who will ultimately be travelling to the Red Planet, Ian O’Neill, the space science producer for Discovery News, suggests that the discovery “could represent a game-changer for the future of Mars colonization” and could be essential to such a mission’s success.
Location of ice deposit ideal – if astronauts can extract the water
In a recent article published on the Discovery News website Seeker.com, O’Neill wrote, “The necessity of landing future Mars explorers near a known water resource is a no-brainer… Water isn’t only a requirement for keeping astronauts alive, it’s needed for fuel production and would sustain any burgeoning Martian agriculture.”
“Put simply, unless we find Martian water and understand how to access it, our Mars colonization dreams are over,” he added. However, the newfound subsurface ice deposit “may, someday, be an oasis for future Mars explorers” as they try to survive on a world that is “more barren (and a lot more toxic) than the dryest desert on Earth,” according to O’Neill.
In a statement, Stuurman said that this deposit (which most likely originated as snowfall before mixing with dust and other particles and accumulating into an ice sheet) represents less than 1% of all known water ice on Mars – so what makes it so important? Like the old real estate mantra, it’s all about “location, location, location.”
For starters, the ice deposits are located near the surface, which would make it easier for a team of astronauts to access. In addition, as co-author and UT professor Jack Holt explained following its initial discovery, this specific deposit is “more accessible than most water ice on Mars,” since it is “at a relatively low latitude and it lies in a flat, smooth area” – meaning it would be easier to land a spacecraft nearby than it would be at other regions near subsurface water ice.
Of course, all that water is useless unless you can find a way to extract it from the underground ice deposits. Fortunately, researchers from the University of Washington are developing a way to do just that, according to GeekWire. They want to use nearly 20-year-old technology known as a water vapor adsorption reactor (WAVAR) to “cook” water out of the soil using microwaves.
Image credit: ESA