Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Remnants of a modern day glacier have been located close to Mars’ equator, suggesting ice may perhaps nonetheless exist at shallow depths in the region. If confirmed, such a discovery could have substantial implications for future human exploration on the Red Planet.

Making use of information from the Higher Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers from the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute detected light-toned deposits (LTDs) on the Martian surface. These capabilities consist of light-colored sulfate salts, crevasse fields and moraine bands, which are indicators of a “relict glacier.”

This relict glacier is situated close to Mars’ equator at 7° 33′ S, 93° 14′ W, and is estimated to be three.7 miles (six kilometers) extended and up to two.five miles (four km) wide, with a surface elevation reaching up to 1.1 miles (1.7 km), according to a statement (opens in new tab) from the SETI Institute. 

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“What we’ve located is not ice, but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic capabilities of a glacier,” Pascal Lee, lead author of the study and a planetary scientist with the SETI and Mars Institutes, mentioned in the statement. “What we feel occurred right here is that salt formed on leading of a glacier even though preserving the shape of the ice under, down to facts like crevasse fields and moraine bands.” 

The presence of such a glacier suggests there may perhaps have been surface water ice on Mars a lot more not too long ago than previously believed, which has implications on each our understanding of the Red Planet’s habitability and future exploration missions. 

“This area of Mars has a history of volcanic activity. And exactly where some of the volcanic components came in get in touch with with glacier ice, chemical reactions would have taken spot at the boundary amongst the two to kind a hardened layer of sulfate salts,” Sourabh Shubham, co-author of the study and graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Division of Geology, mentioned in the statement. “This is the most most likely explanation for the hydrated and hydroxylated sulfates we observe in this light-toned deposit.”

Interpretation of the capabilities on the “relict glacier.” (Image credit: Lee et al. 2023)

The LTDs observed are created up of sulfate salts that kind when freshly erupted pyroclastic components — volcanic ash, pumice and hot lava — come in get in touch with with water ice. As these deposits make up, they kind a hardened, crusty salt layer. More than time, erosion would have exposed the salt deposits, along with crevasses and moraine bands, which are exclusive to glaciers. 

“Glaciers usually present distinctive kinds of capabilities, which includes marginal, splaying, and tic-tac-toe crevasse fields, and also thrust moraine bands and foliation,” John Schutt, co-author of the study and a geologist at the Mars Institute, mentioned in the statement. “We are seeing analogous capabilities in this light-toned deposit, in kind, place, and scale. It really is really intriguing.”

Prior investigation has located glacial activity close to Mars’ equator in the a lot more distant previous, whereas a lot more current glacial activity has only been observed at greater latitudes till now. The current HiRISE observations recommend that these low latitude LTDs are geologically young, according to the statement. 

“A reasonably young relict glacier in this place tells us that Mars seasoned surface ice in current occasions, even close to the equator, which is new,” Lee mentioned in the statement. 

Despite the fact that water ice is not steady at the surface of Mars close to the equator at these elevations, it is doable that some of the glacier’s water ice may perhaps be preserved beneath the sulfate salts. Additional investigation is required to confirm, but if water ice is in truth present at this equatorial area, there is the possibility it could be extracted as a resource for future missions. 

“The wish to land humans at a place exactly where they may well be in a position to extract water ice from the ground has been pushing mission planners to take into consideration greater latitude web sites. But the latter environments are generally colder and a lot more difficult for humans and robots. If there have been equatorial places exactly where ice may well be located at shallow depth, then we’d have the very best of each environments: warmer situations for human exploration and nonetheless access to ice,” Lee mentioned in the statement. “We now have to establish if, and how significantly, water ice may well in fact be present in this relict glacier, and regardless of whether other light-toned deposits may well also have, or have had, ice-wealthy substrates.”

The findings have been presented (opens in new tab) at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 15. 

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