Mars is known today as the Red Planet, but that world was once much more white than it is in the modern era, as the globe was engulfed in a mighty ice age. A new analysis of the frozen poles of Mars reveals evidence of planetary glaciation that ended less than 400,000 years ago.
Polar caps on Mars exhibit particular patterns, similar to a whirlpool. Astronomers studying these markings were able to deduce how the environment of Mars changed over time. These alterations were driven by shifts in the Martian orbit, as well as the tilt of the planet itself.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used to examine the polar regions of the Red Planet using radar.
"We found an accelerated accumulation rate of ice in the uppermost 100 to 300 meters of the polar cap. The volume and thickness of ice matches model predictions from the early 2000s. Radar observations of the ice cap provide a detailed history of ice accumulation and erosion associated with climate change," said Isaac Smith of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).
Shifts in the rotational axis of Mars are far more pronounced on that world than they are on our home planet. Over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, the Earth's rotational axis shifts about two degrees. On Mars, that change can be as great as 60 degrees.
Since the end of the last Martian ice age 370,000 years ago, nearly 21,000 cubic miles of ice have collected at the poles of the Red Planet. If spread evenly across the surface of that world, the planet would be covered in ice to a depth of 24 inches.
Polar caps on Earth and Mars are reversed in size. While Antarctica is significantly larger than the ice cover at the North Pole, ice spreads across a greater area in the northern region of Mars than in the south.
A human mission to Mars will require significant amounts of water to provide space travelers with drinks, as well as to supply crops with moisture. This new study could assist mission planners in learning how water moves across the rugged alien environment.
Analysis of the Martian polar regions showing evidence of an ancient ice age was detailed in the journal Science.