For years, researchers have been striving to find accessible, 'drinkable' water on Mars. However, previous research has always seemed to fall short. The landers and rovers being sent to the Red Planet were only equipped to drill a few centimeters into the surface. Radar detection can help planetary geologists understand what's tens of meters down, but no one could tap into what lies beyond the 20-meter mark -- until now.
Researchers with USGS led by planetary geologist Colin Dundas have found eight separate regions on Mars where erosion has exposed what lies deep below the surface. The team was equipped with the HiRISE camera found on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“We've found a new window into the ice for study, which we hope will be of interest to those interested in all aspects of ice on Mars and its history,” said Dundas, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona. Dundas is also one of the authors of a report published Thursday in the journal Science.
Researchers have known for decades that Mars has ice. In 2001, the Mars Odyssey started its journey looking for chemical traces of ice and found amounts of hydrogen. And as much as one-third of Mars's surface contains shallow ice. Mars even has polar ice caps. However, the ice most recently discovered by Dundas looks very different than previous readings, according to NASA officials.
"Examination of some of the scarps with MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) confirmed that the bright material is frozen water. 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.
Planetary scientists around the world are finding hope in that this could, in fact, be the clue to pure ice. One such excited planetary researcher is Open University's Matt Balme in Britain. While he didn't participate in this study, he noted that the findings mentioned in Dundas's paper were of a completely different color than 'normal' findings.
“If the conclusions of the paper are correct,” he said, “you’re looking at something that's almost pure ice.”
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.
"If we were to send humans to live on Mars for a substantial period of time, it would be a fantastic source of water," Balme said.
The only downside to humans accessing this water? The sites discovered by Dundas and his team were found at the 55 to 60 degree north or south latitudes. Those upper mid-latitudes would give extremely low temperatures and would make crewing expeditions to get to that ice incredibly risky.
However, Dundas believes there are still more ice pockets to be found, and potentially even some closer to more 'hospitable' locations for future explorers closer to the equator of Mars.
"I'm sure we haven't found all of the exposures at this point," he said.