Geological features comprising 300 feet of thick ice was exposed in the surface of Mars.
Eroded slopes of pure water ice called scarps were scanned by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. At least eight scarps were found in both northern and southern hemisphere of Mars' middle latitudes.
Pure Water Ice Discovered From Mars' Surface
The pictures sent back to Earth by MRO showed a more detailed cross-section view of thick ice sheets below a layer of ice-cemented rock and dust on Mars' surface. The 3D images were studied by scientists using the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera.
In 2001, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft discovered that a third of Mars' surface is covered in shallow ice. Also, its poles are full of ice deposits through the detection of hydrogen using gamma rays.
In 2008, the Phoenix lander analyzed and confirmed the Odyssey findings as it discovered buried water ice at 68 degrees north latitude or about one-third into the planet's pole. However, previous scans using the MRO's Shallow Radar instrument were not enough to determine the extent and makeup of ice on the Red Planet.
Scientists were astonished to discover that Mars' mid-latitudes contained pure water ice.
"It was surprising to find ice exposed at the surface at these places. In the mid-latitudes, it's normally covered by a blanket of dust or regolith," loose bits of rock atop a layer of bedrock, said Colin Dundas, research geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
The ice sheets appear bluish in the high-resolution images and look like steep cliffs of glaciers, up to 100 meters tall. The discovery points to a vast area of underground ice buried only a meter or two below Martian ground surface. The location of the scarps was at 55 to 58 middle latitudes or the equivalent of Scotland or the tip of South America on Earth.
Shayne Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson said the discovery was like looking at an ant farm from a glass on the side and seeing what's hidden beneath the ground.
How Scarps Were Formed
No definitive information was provided on how the scarps were formed. Scientists said once the buried ice is exposed to Mars' atmosphere, a scarp likely grows wider and taller as it retreats. It is also possible that layers of snow were compressed every climate cycle, resulting in the building deposits of ice over time.
The varying shades of light to a dark blue color of ice as shown on the images suggest that the thick slabs of ice are stacked. The ice could also be remnants of glaciers that existed millions of years ago.
Unlimited Source Of Water And Possible Life On Mars
The discovery is considered a game changer in mankind's exploration of Mars. Scientists have raised the possibility that the thick ice sheets could become a potential accessible source of water for future scientific exploration and visit to Mars. Byrne suggested that would-be visitors to Mars can just use a bucket and shovel and collect water from the sources.
The latest research gave scientists a glimpse of Mars' climate history and would be the basis for further study of its water sources. It will also help NASA and other agencies plan upcoming rover and human missions to Mars.
The study was published in the journal Science.