Colin Dundas and a team of researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey announced their findings today, saying a number of ice deposits - some at depths as shallow as one or two meters below the planet's surface - have been exposed by surface erosion. "A check of the surface temperature using Odyssey's Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera helped researchers determine they're not seeing just thin frost covering the ground", explains NASA on their website.
The remarkable ice cliffs appear to contain distinct layers, which could preserve a record of Mars' past climate, according to the report. But of course it's hard to confirm the identity of the layers seen in radar echoes, and the instrument doesn't have the resolution to figure out how close the ice might be to the surface beyond "less than 20 meters". Their lower reaches were covered in rubble, making it hard to determine the total thickness of any ice deposits.
There are plans to get humans to Mars by the 2030s. The discovery of ice on the planet could be a big asset to any future exploration that is aimed at colonising the red planet.
"In many ways, water is the key resource: Humans need liquid water biologically, water can be processed to provide oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for energy generation and even rocket fuel". In 2016, researchers found evidence to suggest one ice deposit holds as much water as Lake Superior. Millions of years ago, Mars span on a different axis and in a different orbit, so some scientists say these signatures may be remnants of glaciers from then.
That said, it may not be all that easy to access the ice found in the new study. The study examined north and south pole-facing erosional slopes, known as scarps, in eight locations around Mars, all in the mid-latitudes.
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Balme noted that this find would also benefit potential future explorers, especially given the rapidly approaching Mars exploration deadlines of various countries around the world.
The scarps are actively retreating because of sublimation of the exposed water ice.
Mars clearly had a watery past, and it's expected that much of the water is still on the planet.
Over time, what first began as snow is "compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice", the study says.
The MRO, a spacecraft created to conduct reconnaissance and exploration of Mars from orbit, has been taking pictures to locate exposed ice in craters, glaciers and ice sheets.