- NASA scientists discovered eight instances of ice exposed on the Martian surface.
- While scientists have long known about the red planet's sub-surface ice sheets, this is the first time ice has been seen exposed and easily accessible.
- The ice could be a "game-changer" for human exploration and eventual settlement on the red planet.
There may be a major source of easily accessible drinkable water on Mars, according to a new study in the journal Science.
Using images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the planet since 2006, scientists working with the space agency discovered ice sheets that are relatively pure and partially exposed on the Martian surface.
Scientists have long known about the existence of subsurface ice on the red planet and about major ice deposits on its frigid poles. But they hadn't seen exposed ice on other parts of the planet's surface before. The newly discovered ice deposits are thick sheets just under the Martian surface, and parts of the sheets are exposed in eight sites on steep slopes up to 100 meters tall.
Shane Byrne, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and one of the study's authors, told Reuters the discovery a potential "game-changer" for human exploration of Mars.
"Here we have what we think is almost pure water ice buried just below the surface. You don't see a high-tech solution," Byrne said. "You can go out with a bucket and shovel and just collect as much water as you need."
The scientists believe the ice is consolidated snow that was deposited relatively recently in geologic terms.
The exposed portions of ice are located at mid-latitudes, where the temperatures are a bit balmier for humans and robots to operate. Other ice that exists at these latitudes is covered by layers of Martian dust, or regolith. Those layers of loose rock make the sub-surface ice extremely difficult to access, Colin Dundas, the study's leader and a geologist with the US Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center, told Reuters.
"Previous ideas for extracting human-usable water from Mars were to pull it from the very dry atmosphere or to break down water-containing rocks," Byrne said. But because these newly discovered ice deposits are so much more accessible, they could aid the foundation of a permanent Mars base - or at least, could support future missions to study the planet.
Your move, Elon Musk.