With Elon Musk keen to settle on Mars, and NASA planning its own human missions, there’s more to it than finding a safe place to land on the red planet. When it’s no longer just robots, rovers and drones arriving, accessing the untapped abundance of ice that lies beneath the Martian surface will be key for astronauts too.
Expertly checking both boxes, planetary geologists at Western have now discovered sinuous, flowing, glacier-like features below the Martian surface in an area that is relatively flat – perfect for future Mars landings.
Using radar, infrared and visible data, researchers at Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration detected the features and determined they are unique in that they don’t appear to be defined by any surface topography though they share some characteristics with other glacier-like forms called Viscous Flow Features previously found on Mars.
According to Shannon Hibbard, a PhD candidate with Western Space and the Department of Earth Sciences, these new features appear to be channelized ice and show evidence of flow yet they lie in a flat-lying region that also happens to be where a buried ice sheet has been detected.
“We have not seen anything quite like this on Mars, so we look to Earth where streams of ice within ice sheets can exist with no obvious control from surface topography. On Earth, these are known as ice streams,” said Hibbard, first author of the study published in the journal, Icarus.
The features are located at Arcadia Planitia, a region of low-lying plains in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere of Mars. (The study site is located between 37 and 43 degrees north and 193 and 204 degrees east). Hibbard says there are several factors that go into selecting a good place to land on Mars, including latitude, topography and scientific value and Arcadia Planitia has it all.
“What I think makes Arcadia Planitia a good destination for future human space flight and resource utilization is its flat topography for safe landing along with an abundance of near-surface ice at relatively low latitudes for human use and scientific investigation of potential ice streams,” said Hibbard.
While the potential ice streams are an exciting finding for Hibbard and her collaborators, including Western Space director Gordon Osinski, the researchers are not yet ready to say the discovery provides evidence of water on Mars.
“Ice-stream flow dynamics on Earth are still unclear,” said Hibbard. “However, it is likely that subglacial water plays an important role in ice stream initiation and flow, especially where surface slope is low, like what we see at the sinuous features in Arcadia Planitia. So, it is possible that at some point subglacial water was present at this location on Mars, but it is unclear how much and for how long.”
If subglacial water was once present, it has major implications for past climate and potential for life on Mars. Looking towards the future, astronauts could access and utilize water in its solid form for fuel, irrigation, and drinking needs.
“Engineers are always showing us that they can do the impossible,” said Hibbard. “They are currently coming up with multiple ways to access buried water ice for multiuse purposes. Wherever NASA and SpaceX decide to land, we know they will be able to find a way to access the ice.”
Hibbard started the study at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Ca., with coauthors Matthew Golombek and Nathan Williams, and completed it at Western as a graduate student.
“It wasn’t until coming to Western that I gained more of a background in glacial and periglacial processes that helped me look at Arcadia Planitia in a different light,” she said. “I was then able to explore possible Earth analogues and carefully use them to make sense of these unique features we observed on Mars.”
Osinski is a firm believer that any interpretations of conditions on Mars must first use Earth as a reference point.
“Fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic forms the basis for much of our Mars-related research here at Western and it’s great to see all of Shannon’s hard work, both in the field and in the lab, deliver with this promising discovery,” said Osinski.