Water on planet Mars just a shovel away

Mars

Scientists have been able to pinpoint where water lies below the dusty surface on the planet Mars.

With NASA and the likes of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin intent on finding life beyond planet Earth, a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows a map of water ice that could be just an inch (2.5 centimetres) beneath the surface.

In 2020, NASA will send the Mars 2020 rover to continue seeking the signs of life on the red planet. Another aspect of the 2020 rover mission will be to collect carefully documented rock and soil samples that we hope to return to Earth for study. In 2020 five other spacecraft are scheduled to launch: the ExoMars rover (European Space Agency), the United Arab Emirates Hope Orbiter, a Japanese orbiter, a Chinese rover and a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

NASA, Mars, water

Ahead of any manned mission, robots have been on the planet on-and-off for years. Rovers have investigated the surface for signs of past life and evidence of water, while orbiters looping around Mars image and map the planet. Data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey Orbiter have also been able to detect the signature of water ice beneath the surface.

“You wouldn’t need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel,” said Sylvain Piqueux, study author at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’re continuing to collect data on buried ice on Mars, zeroing in on the best places for astronauts to land.”

NASA said water ice will be a key consideration for any potential landing site. With little room to spare aboard a spacecraft, any human missions to the planet will have to harvest what’s already available for drinking water and making rocket fuel, NASA reported.

NASA said the availability of water is an important factor in selecting human landing sites on the planet.

“Satellites orbiting Mars are essential in helping scientists determine the best places for building the first Martian research station. The authors of the new paper make use of data from two of those spacecraft, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter, to locate water ice that could potentially be within reach of astronauts on the Red Planet, NASA said.

Mars was a warm planet that could potentially support life and water on its surface. But something happened about 3.5 billion years ago and Mars lost most of its atmosphere. Only a thin one exists today, allowing gases like water vapor to escape. And if water were to be on the surface now, it would instantly evaporate.

The polar ice is the most well-known because the orbiters have imaged it. Meteors even helped increase understanding of the polar ice because they impact it, allowing the orbiter to take pictures of the disturbed ice.

Read next: Meet the female NASA engineer making ground-breaking history on Mars

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