Evidence of a current glacier’s existence at shallow depths near Mars’ equator provides support for this theory. If verified, this finding would have far-reaching consequences for future Mars expeditions.
Researchers from the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute found light-toned deposits (LTDs) on Mars using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). Features such as crevasse fields, moraine bands, and sulfate salts of a lighter tint are indicative of a “relict glacier.”
According to a statement(opens in new tab) from the SETI Institute, this relict glacier is located near the equator of Mars at 7° 33′ S, 93° 14′ W, and is approximately 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) in length, up to 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) in width, and has a surface elevation reaching up to 1.1 miles (1.7 kilometers).
The discovery of a glacier on Mars has important implications for our knowledge of the Red Planet’s habitability and for future research missions since it shows that surface water ice on Mars may have existed more recently than previously imagined.
“What we’ve found is not ice, but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic features of a glacier,” Pascal Lee, lead author of the study and a planetary scientist with the SETI and Mars Institutes, said in the statement. “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 crevasse fields and moraine bands.”
The observed LTDs are composed of sulfate salts produced by the freezing of water in contact with pyroclastic materials such as volcanic ash, pumice, and hot lava. This accumulation eventually turns into a crusty salt coating. The salt deposits, together with the crevices and moraine bands that are characteristic of glaciers, would have been uncovered by erosion over time.
Recent Evidence of Glacial Activity Near the Equator on Mars
“Glaciers often display various types of features, including marginal, splaying, and tic-tac-toe crevasse fields, and also thrust moraine bands and foliation,” John Schutt, co-author of the study and a geologist at the Mars Institute, said in the release. “Identical traits in terms of shape, placement, and size are being seen in this pale deposit. This is a fascinating topic.”
Glacial activity has been discovered near Mars’ equator in the past, but until now, it has only been recorded at higher latitudes. This assertion asserts that recent HiRISE findings indicate that low-latitude LTDs are young in geological terms.
According to the statement, “a relatively fresh relict glacier in this position informs us that Mars experienced surface ice in recent times, even near the equator,” added Lee.
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Despite the fact that water ice is not stable on the surface of Mars near the equator at these elevations, some of the glacier’s water ice may be maintained beneath the sulfate salts. If water ice is indeed present in this equatorial region, it may be possible to extract it as a resource for future missions; however, this must be confirmed by more investigation.
“The desire to land humans at a location where they might be able to extract water ice from the ground has been pushing mission planners to consider higher latitude sites. But the latter environments are typically colder and more challenging for humans and robots.
If there were equatorial locations where ice might be found at shallow depth, then we’d have the best of both environments: warmer conditions for human exploration and still access to ice,” Lee said in the statement.
“We now have to determine if, and how much, water ice might actually be present in this relict glacier, and whether other light-toned deposits might also have, or have had, ice-rich substrates.”
At the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 15, the results were presented.
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