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Remnants of a contemporary glacier have been discovered close to Mars’ equator, suggesting ice may possibly nevertheless exist at shallow depths in the location. If confirmed, such a discovery could have important implications for future human exploration on the Red Planet.

Making use of information from the Higher Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers from the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute detected light-toned deposits (LTDs) on the Martian surface. These characteristics consist of light-colored sulfate salts, crevasse fields and moraine bands, which are indicators of a “relict glacier.”

This relict glacier is situated close to Mars’ equator at 7° 33′ S, 93° 14′ W, and is estimated to be three.7 miles (six kilometers) lengthy and up to two.five miles (four km) wide, with a surface elevation reaching up to 1.1 miles (1.7 km), according to a statement (opens in new tab) from the SETI Institute. 

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“What we’ve discovered is not ice, but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic characteristics of a glacier,” Pascal Lee, lead author of the study and a planetary scientist with the SETI and Mars Institutes, mentioned in the statement. “What we consider occurred right here is that salt formed on prime of a glacier even though preserving the shape of the ice under, down to specifics like crevasse fields and moraine bands.” 

The presence of such a glacier suggests there may possibly have been surface water ice on Mars a lot more lately than previously believed, which has implications on each our understanding of the Red Planet’s habitability and future exploration missions. 

“This area of Mars has a history of volcanic activity. And exactly where some of the volcanic supplies came in speak to with glacier ice, chemical reactions would have taken spot at the boundary in between the two to type a hardened layer of sulfate salts,” Sourabh Shubham, co-author of the study and graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Division of Geology, mentioned in the statement. “This is the most probably explanation for the hydrated and hydroxylated sulfates we observe in this light-toned deposit.”

Interpretation of the characteristics on the “relict glacier.” (Image credit: Lee et al. 2023)

The LTDs observed are created up of sulfate salts that type when freshly erupted pyroclastic supplies — volcanic ash, pumice and hot lava — come in speak to with water ice. As these deposits make up, they type a hardened, crusty salt layer. More than time, erosion would have exposed the salt deposits, along with crevasses and moraine bands, which are one of a kind to glaciers. 

“Glaciers normally present distinctive varieties of characteristics, such as marginal, splaying, and tic-tac-toe crevasse fields, and also thrust moraine bands and foliation,” John Schutt, co-author of the study and a geologist at the Mars Institute, mentioned in the statement. “We are seeing analogous characteristics in this light-toned deposit, in type, place, and scale. It really is quite intriguing.”

Prior analysis has discovered glacial activity close to Mars’ equator in the a lot more distant previous, whereas a lot more current glacial activity has only been observed at larger latitudes till now. The current HiRISE observations recommend that these low latitude LTDs are geologically young, according to the statement. 

“A fairly young relict glacier in this place tells us that Mars knowledgeable surface ice in current occasions, even close to the equator, which is new,” Lee mentioned in the statement. 

Though water ice is not steady at the surface of Mars close to the equator at these elevations, it is achievable that some of the glacier’s water ice may possibly be preserved beneath the sulfate salts. Additional analysis is necessary to confirm, but if water ice is in reality present at this equatorial area, there is the possibility it could be extracted as a resource for future missions. 

“The need to land humans at a place exactly where they could possibly be capable to extract water ice from the ground has been pushing mission planners to look at larger latitude web sites. But the latter environments are commonly colder and a lot more difficult for humans and robots. If there had been equatorial areas exactly where ice could possibly be discovered at shallow depth, then we’d have the very best of each environments: warmer situations for human exploration and nevertheless access to ice,” Lee mentioned in the statement. “We now have to establish if, and how significantly, water ice could possibly essentially be present in this relict glacier, and no matter if other light-toned deposits could possibly also have, or have had, ice-wealthy substrates.”

The findings had been presented (opens in new tab) at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 15. 

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