Scientists discover signs of ‘modern’ glacier on Mars that hints at buried water ice

The remains of a modern glacier have been discovered near the equator of Mars, suggesting that ice may still exist at shallow depths in the area. If confirmed, such a discovery could have significant implications for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

Using data from the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers from the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute have detected light deposits (LTD) on the surface of Mars. These features consist of light-coloured sulfate salts, fissure fields, and bands of moraines that are hallmarks of a “relic glacier”.

This relic glacier is located near the equator of Mars at 7° 33′ S, 93° 14′ W, and is estimated to be 3.7 miles (6 km) long and up to 2.5 miles (4 km) wide. km), and the surface height reaches up to 1.1 miles (1.7 km), according to the statement (will open in a new tab) from the SETI Institute.

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“What we found is not ice, but a salt deposit with detailed morphological characteristics of a glacier,” Pascal Lee, study lead author and planetary scientist at the SETI and Mars Institutes, said in a statement. “We think what happened here is that the salt formed at the top of the glacier while retaining the shape of the ice below, down to details like crack fields and moraine bands.”

The presence of such a glacier suggests that ice on the surface of Mars may have appeared later than previously thought, which has implications both for our understanding of the habitability of the Red Planet and for future exploration missions.

“This region of Mars has a history of volcanic activity. And where some of the volcanic materials came into contact with glacial ice, chemical reactions took place at the boundary between them with the formation of a hardened layer of sulfate salts, ”Surabh Shubham. , co-author of the study and a graduate student in the Department of Geology at the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “This is the most likely explanation for the hydrated and hydroxylated sulfates we see in this light deposit.”

Interpretation of the features of the “relic glacier”. (Image credit: Li et al., 2023)

The observed LTDs are composed of sulfate salts that form when freshly erupted pyroclastic materials — volcanic ash, pumice, and hot lava — come into contact with water ice. As these deposits accumulate, they form a hardened layer of salt with a crust. Over time, erosion would expose the salt deposits, as well as cracks and bands of moraines that are unique to glaciers.

“Glaciers often have distinctive types of features, including marginal, sprawling and tic-tac-toe fissure fields, as well as thrust bands and moraine layering,” said John Schutt, study co-author and geologist at the Mars Institute. in a statement. “We see similar features in this light deposit in terms of shape, location and scale. It’s very intriguing.”

Previous studies have found glacial activity near Mars’ equator in the more distant past, while more recent glacial activity has so far only been observed at higher latitudes. According to the statement, recent HiRISE observations suggest that these low-latitude LTDs are geologically young.

“The relatively young relic glacier at this location tells us that there has been ice on the surface of Mars recently, even near the equator, which is new,” Lee said in a statement.

Although water ice is unstable on the Martian surface near the equator at these altitudes, it is possible that some of the glacier’s water ice may be preserved under sulfate salts. Further research is needed to confirm, but if water ice is indeed present in this equatorial region, there is a chance it could be recovered as a resource for future missions.

“The desire to land people in a place where they could mine water ice from the ground pushed mission planners to consider places at higher latitudes. But the latter environments tend to be colder and more challenging for humans and robots. equatorial locations where ice can be found at shallow depths, then we will have the best of both worlds: warmer conditions for human exploration and still access to ice,” Li said in a statement. “Now we need to determine if and how much water ice can actually be present in this relic glacier, and if other light deposits can or did have ice-rich substrates as well.”

Conclusions were presented (will open in a new tab) at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in The Woodlands, Texas on March 15.

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