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Snowball fight officially possible on Mars

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Mars is covered in huge quantities of ice and snow, according to NASA researchers, but the watery stuff is well mixed-in with the red planet's sandy dunes.

Speaking at the British Association science festival in Dublin, Mary Bourke, of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, said that the so-called niveo-aeolian (snow, carried by the wind) deposits could still be a useful resource for future manned missions to Mars.

Earth has plenty of these ice-rich sand dunes, which tend to form distinctive features, such as overhanging cornices, which cannot form in arid sand. According to the FT some of the best examples can be found in Alaska and Antarctica.

By studying high resolution snaps of the Martian surface, Bourke was able to identify many of these features in the North Polar Sand Sea and southern crater dune fields, and so conclude that Mars boasts similar niveo-aeolian deposits.

Some of the dunes might contain substantial quantities of water, she predicts. One in particular, which, at four miles long by 1,558 feet high, is the largest dune in the solar system, could be as much as 40 or 50 per cent H2O in its upper layers.

Bourke suggests that much of the snow and ice would have fallen when Mars was much younger, but that some could also be a result of frosts forming on the dunes and being mixed into the sand by the planet's infamously fast winds.

NASA has yet to investigate the areas in question, largely because no one is really sure how to land a craft safely on such difficult terrain. However, future missions will probably want to check the regions out: Bourke reckons that the icy sand could be a prime spot for finding primitive life. ®

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