Scientists have made an exciting discovery about the potential presence of surface water ice on Mars. The recent announcement at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas revealed that glacial activity has been detected near the Martian equator. This is significant because it suggests that ice may still exist in shallow depths, which has important implications for future manned missions to the Red Planet.
The glacial relic was found in eastern Noctis Labyrinthus and is estimated to have been around 6 kilometres long and up to 4 kilometres wide. It had a surface elevation ranging from 1.3 to 1.7 kilometres and shows many features of a glacier, including crevasse fields and marine bands. This discovery is particularly noteworthy because it implies that Mars' recent history may have been more watery than previously thought, which could have important implications for understanding the planet's habitability.
The study's lead author, Pascal Lee, explains that the team's discovery wasn't ice but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic features of a glacier. What they think happened is that salt formed on top of a glacier while preserving the shape of the ice below, including details of crevasse fields and moraine bands. The presence of volcanic materials blanketing the region hints at how the sulphate salts might have formed and preserved the glacier imprint underneath.
This region of Mars has a history of volcanic activity, and where some of the volcanic materials came into contact with glacial ice, chemical reactions would have taken place at the boundary between the two to form a hardened layer of sulfate salts. Over time, with erosion removing the blanketing volcanic materials, a crusty layer of sulfates mirroring the glacial ice underneath became exposed. That would explain how a salt deposit is now visible, preserving features unique to glaciers such as crevasses and marine bands.
It remains to be seen whether water ice might still be preserved underneath the light-tone deposit or if it's disappeared completely. Today, water ice isn't stable on the Martian equatorial surface at these elevations, so it's not surprising that scientists aren't detecting any water ice at the surface. It's possible that the glacier's water ice has sublimated away by now. However, there's also a chance that some of it might still be protected at shallow depth under the sulfate salts.
If there is still water ice preserved at shallow depths at a low latitude on Mars, that would have serious implications for future science missions as well as long-term human exploration. The desire to land people 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. But if there is an equatorial location where ice might be found at shallow depth, then missions have the best of both environments. Warmer conditions for people to explore but still with access to water ice.
This discovery is exciting because it opens up new possibilities for future exploration and could help us better understand the history and habitability of Mars. The fact that the glacier is relatively young means that there's still much to learn about the planet and what secrets it might hold. The discovery of glacial activity near the equator is just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting era of exploration and discovery on Mars.
This story is from SpaceTime with Stuart Gary S26E35.