Mars Hiding New Mexico-Sized Ice Sheet

First Posted: Nov 28, 2016 04:20 AM EST

One of the most pressing problems in addressing life on Mars is its lack of water. At least, that is what scientists thought, until it was revealed that there may be an ice sheet with more water than Lake Superior on the planet.

With the help of radar soundings from NASA's own Mars Reconnaissance Orbiters spacecraft, scientists were able to check what lay beneath Utopia Planitia, the 2,000-mile-wide basin located in an ancient impact crater. The New York Times noted that the polygonal cracks and scalloped depressions in the landscape of the region mystified scientists for decades.

On the Canadian Arctic here on Earth, such patterns arise from ice that is located beneath the surface, forming as the ground cracks on expanding ice and changing temperatures. The scallops are usually found where the surface sinks as ice melts.

The Mars Odyssey, which previously investigated the region, showed that the region is dry. However, the instruments were noted to only be able to investigate about a yard beneath the surface, as opposed to the Reconnaissance, which could peer much deeper underground.

Cassie Stuurman, a University of Texas at Austin graduate and the lead author of an article published in the Geophysical Research Letters, described their own findings, revealing that radar reflections proved ice sheets ranging in thickness from 260 to 560 feet covered the area and is larger than New Mexico.

The ice, according to the study, is also fairly pure. It is believed to be at least 50 percent frozen water with dirt, rocks and porous empty spaces mixed in.

While water ice is plentiful along the poles, Utopia Planitia may be a more attractive site for future astronauts with its more temperate mid-northern latitudes. The benefits of finding the ice is not limited for drinking, either: the water could also be split into oxygen and hydrogen, elements that can be used for rocket fuel.

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