A giant sea of ice lies just under the surface of Mars, researchers reported this week in the journal Science. The find reignites the question of whether life once existed on the Red Planet, or still does.
The Mars Odyssey spacecraft found the H20
In one of the most important findings made about the Red Planet, the American space agency NASA has reported this week that vast quantities of water lie just one meter (three feet) under Mars’ dry and dusty surface
The discovery, made by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, answers one of the questions that have been plaguing scientists. They saw all the signs of water having existed at some point in Mars’ history, but where did all that water go?
Now it appears that it is to be found in the regolith, the loose layer of rock and dust on the surface.
"It turns out it is really quite a bit more ice than I think most people ever really expected," William Boynton of the University of Arizona told Reuters.
The quantity could be compared with twice the amount of water in Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes on the border between Canada and the United States. That could just be the tip of iceberg.
The dramatic find will likely guide the selection of future landing sites on Mars and suggest areas to look for past, or even present life.
Once a Soggy Place
Research has indicated for some time that Mars was once a rather warm and wet planet. Photographs show deep canyons on the surface, deeper and wider than anything on earth. Other geographic features look like dried-up lakes or seabeds.
The planet’s surface is dry and dusty today. With surface temperatures hovering around -53 degrees C (-63 degrees F), there’s little chance of finding liquid water above ground.
NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has been returning data to earth for about a year now. One of the craft's tasks was to look for chemical evidence of water, which is found with an instrument that looks for the presence of hydrogen under the surface. Astronomers believe that that hydrogen is locked up in ice crystals.
Researchers said they were amazed at the strength of the signal of the ice. Evidence they thought they would need a year to gather came in in just a few weeks.
A Boon for Exploration
Having water within relatively easy reach will give future explorers enormous advantages.
Researchers say the water could possibly be tapped as a source of fuel and perhaps even be a source of drinking water. But astronauts wouldn’t drink it straight away, according to NASA’s Jim Garvin.
"If Martian microbes are sitting there waiting to bloom," he said, "the last thing we would want is a war of the worlds waiting to blow up in our bellies."