Planetary Researchers Map Potential Sources of Martian Water

Future manned trips to Mars will require on-site resources, including water, and planetary scientists from a project called ‘Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) on Mars’ are mapping the availability of potential water-ice sources across the Martian surface.

Planetary Researchers Map Potential Sources of Martian Water

Artist’s concept of humans working on Mars. Image credit: NASA / Johnson Space Center / Pat Rawlings, SAIC.

The challenges associated with delivering humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth cannot be overstated. Within the parameters of current propulsion technology, mass will be the ultimate premium, and thus leveraging all available on-site resources will be essential.

The most valuable Martian resource for living off the land is water, which offers fuel to sustain an outpost and for the return to Earth, in addition to the most important ingredients of life support, namely liquid water and a means to breathe.

“Water ice will be a critical resource for human explorers on Mars, not only for life support but also for generating fuel to power equipment on the ground and rockets for the return journey to Earth,” said Dr. Nathaniel Putzig, a senior scientist at Planetary Science Institute.

“Maps that identify the nature and availability of potential water resources will help determine where humanity will establish its first outposts on Mars.”

Dr. Putzig and colleagues are producing new maps of the likelihood of subsurface ice deposits over several ‘special’ regions — Arcadia Planitia, Acidalia Planitia, Deuteronilus Mensae and Utopia Planitia — by combining radar, thermal, neutron, altimetry, and image data from several Mars-orbiting spacecraft.

They are also employing newly-developed techniques that include using radar returns to infer the presence of ice within the top 16 feet (5 m) of the crust and applying advanced radar processing to improve resolution at depth and to estimate the purity of ice in the subsurface.

“The goal of the SWIM project is to provide a set of mapping products using existing spacecraft data that delineate subsurface ice in the mid-latitudes of Mars,” said Dr. Gareth Morgan, a research scientist at Planetary Science Institute.

“We aim to identify and map indicators of possible subsurface ice in each data set and use a combination of all data sets to assess the likelihood of ice being present in shallow and deep zones, above and below 16 feet in depth.”

The researchers will present their preliminary results this month at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

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