A new discovery could affect the future of human exploration of Mars

CALGARY, Alberta (CTV Network) – While humans may be starry-eyed about sending humans across the solar system to live on Mars one day, the discovery of a “relic glacier” on the Red Planet could mean the dream is a step closer to reality.

Scientists say the “groundbreaking announcement” presented at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, could mean that “surface water ice” exists on Mars even to this day.

A “relict glacier” is not made of ice, but rather is one of several “light-toned deposits” (LTDs) found in the area. Scientists say LTDs typically consist of bright sulfate salts, but this one appears to have very similar properties to a glacier.

Scientists say the relic glacier was found near the Martian equator (exactly in eastern Noctis Labyrinthus at coordinates 7° 33′ S, 93°14′ W for space enthusiasts), meaning there may still be ice around the area at low depths that could have “significant implications for future human exploration.”

The discovery suggests that Mars may have had a more “watery” history than scientists previously assumed, which could change our understanding of how the red planet can support human life.

“We’ve known of glacial activity on Mars in many places, including near the equator for a long time. And we’ve known of recent glacial activity on Mars, but so far only at higher latitudes. A relatively young relict glacier at this location tells us that Mars has experienced surface ice in recent times, even near the equator, which is new,” said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, and lead author of the study.

“The desire to land humans in a place where they might be able to extract water ice from the ground has led mission planners to consider locations at higher latitudes. But the latter environments are typically colder and more challenging for humans and robots. If there were equatorial places where ice could be found at shallow depth, then we would have the best of both environments: warmer conditions for human exploration and still access to ice,” said Lee.

However, Lee says more research needs to be done to find out if and how much ice can be preserved under the LTDs.

“What we think happened here is that salt formed on top of a glacier while preserving the shape of the ice below, down to details like fissure fields and moraine bands.

“Water ice is not currently stable on the very surface of Mars near the equator at these altitudes. So it is not surprising that we do not detect any water ice at the surface. It is possible that all the glacial water ice has sublimated away now. But there is also a chance that some of it may still be protected at shallow depth beneath the sulfate salts,” Lee said.

Sourabh Shubham, a graduate student in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and a co-author of the study, says it is likely that volcanic eruptions in the area of ​​the discovery preserved the glacier’s imprint.

“This region of Mars has a history of volcanic activity. And where some of the volcanic material came into contact with glacial ice, chemical reactions would have occurred at the boundary between the two to form a hardened layer of sulfate salts,” Shubham explained. This is the most likely explanation for the hydrated and hydroxylated sulfates we observe in this bright deposit.”

Scientists add that as volcanic materials in the area eroded over time, the glacier’s imprint became visible in the salt deposits.

“Glaciers often display distinctive types of features, including marginal, extended fissure fields and fissure fields, and also thrust moraine bands and foliation. We see analogous features in this bright deposit in shape, location and scale. It’s very exciting,” said John Schutt, a geologist at the Mars Institute, experienced Arctic and Antarctic ice field guide and co-author of this study.

The study suggests that the relict glacier must be relatively young geologically, probably from the Amazonian period – the most recent geological period that includes modern Mars.

The authors of the study believe that what happened on Mars may be similar to what happened in the wages of the Altiplano in South America. Ancient glacial ice in this area has been preserved under “blankets of bright salts.”

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