Science

Ice cliffs found on Mars and NASA says they’re a tap for astronauts

Not so fast, please. Ask polar explorers and mountaineers how hard it is to get a drink

By Simon Sharwood

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Mars boffins have spotted lots of almost-pure water ice on Mars.

Detailed in a Science paper titled ” Exposed subsurface ice sheets in the Martian mid-latitudes”, the find was made using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. The scientists who tend that instrument spotted patches of blue on the red planet, decided to look more closely and eventually found eight patches of ice.

The discovery is very exciting: cliffs seem to be the face of glaciers hundreds of meters deep and composed of water ice. Some of the deposits are under just one or two meters of dirt. Better still, they’re at latitudes of 55 degrees north and south. Such locales are nasty places in winter but less nasty than Mars’ super-frigid polar regions, so could perhaps be accessible from the kind of locales humans could set up presences on Mars.

NASA’s take on things includes an observation that “Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need," a quote it’s attributed to one of the paper’s co-authors, Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson.

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Which sounds great until one considers what every traveller to high alpine or polar climes knows: ice is less dense than water and it takes energy to melt it. The “all we need in a bucket” scenario is therefore rather optimistic, as we don't know the density of Martian ice or whether it will need purification before consumption. And of course the tools to recover it will need to be schlepped to Mars.

Boffins are also excited by the finds’ potential to help us understand Martian history. Terrestrial ice deposits are often mined to see what lies within, so perhaps one day we’ll have the chance to sample Martian ice too. ®

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