Glacier relict on Mars indicates possibility of ice at low latitudes

The findings could help us find the planet's water and better grasp whether it is habitable.
Mrigakshi Dixit
“Relict Glacier”
“Relict Glacier”

Lee et al. 2023 

Scientists have been on a quest to find water on Mars. Numerous observations of the planet suggest surface features resembling rivers and oceans, implying that water may have flowed in the planet's early history. The planet is now desolate and inhospitable. Nonetheless, our hopes of finding liquid water on the Martian surface will never reach a dead-end.

A new announcement has just been made at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. They discovered a "relict glacier" near the equator of Mars — suggesting the presence of ice at low latitudes.

This discovery piques our interest because the study notes that glacial activity is relatively new. This could be a significant development towards the possible existence of surface water ice in recent times.

“We’ve known about glacial activity on Mars at many locations, including near the equator in the more distant past. And we’ve known about recent glacial activity on Mars, but so far, only at higher latitudes. A relatively young relict glacier in this location tells us that Mars experienced surface ice recently, even near the equator, which is new,” said Dr. Pascal Lee in a press release, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute, the Mars Institute, and the lead author of the study.

Light-toned deposits led to the discovery

This relict glacier is located at the Eastern Noctis Labyrinthus on Mars. What's intriguing is the presence of light-toned deposits (LTDs) made up of sulfate salts in the region. Since the 1970s, scientists have been tracking the presence of LTDs to decode the planet's past and present conditions. LTDs have been widely observed in Mars' vast Valles Marineris canyon system.

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Glacier relict on Mars indicates possibility of ice at low latitudes
Interpretation of the “Relict Glacier” ‘s features.

Interestingly, the deposit shows detailed "morphologic characteristics of a glacier," including crevasse fields and moraine bands. The discovered glacier measures approximately 6 kilometers long and up to 4 kilometers wide.

“What we’ve found is not ice, but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic features of a glacier. What we think happened here is that salt formed on top of a glacier while preserving the shape of the ice below, down to details like crevasse fields and moraine bands,” explained Lee.

Importance of this study

One aspect of this study suggests that liquid water flowed on Mars until more recently than previously thought.

Further research into the findings could help us understand the planet's habitability and the presence of liquid water. The study also has implications for future human exploration, as finding ice reservoirs could be critical to survival on Mars. Astronauts could mine it for fuel as well as drinking water.

Scientists say that the next step in the investigation will be determining whether water ice is still present beneath the light-toned deposit. Additionally, whether or not the other LTDs found on Mars showcase similar glacial features. 

The full study was published in association with the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2023 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

A light-toned deposit (LTD) in Eastern Noctis Labyrinthus presents distinctive morphologic characteristics of a glacier. Although the glacier is likely relict, the preservation of fine-scale glacial features opens the possibility that H2O ice might still be pre-served beneath LTD material. Recent equatorial glaciation, volcanism, and volcano-ice interaction on Mars are implied.

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