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Could Future Martian Astronauts Search For Life Here?

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If future astronaut crews are ready for the challenge, they may be able to use water ice in a tough mountainous region of Mars.

But to get to these higher regions of the Argyre basin will be quite the endeavor. Astronauts will have to land in a craggy area with few flat spots to put down a lander. Also, the atmosphere will be much thinner than closer to “sea level” on the Red Planet, making it challenging to design the parachutes and spacecraft.

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But what a reward it will be if we can actually get there. Scientists recently found a huge reservoir of water ice in the region. The water is precious not only for drinking, but for operating machinery. The region would be great for using local resources for living off the land and reducing our need to ship heavy water all the way from Earth.

“Our radar analysis shows that at least one of these features is about 500 meters [1,640 feet] thick and nearly 100 percent ice, with a debris covering at most ten meters [32 feet] thick,” said Daniel C. Berman, Planetary Science Institute senior scientist, in a statement. In other words, astronauts will have to excavate a little to reach the water ice, but once they do, the precious resource is available in abundance.

Scientists spotted the ice using the venerable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft from NASA, which regularly probes the Red Planet using radar to look for reflections that could indicate water ice. What’s also interesting is how young this ice is, with the crater showing little erosion from Martian weather. It’s possible that the water ice deposits only stabilized a few tens of millions of years ago, which indicates that water was mobile on Mars in the planet’s relatively recent history.

Of course, there is abundant evidence of water even in ancient Martian times, although how the water left the surface is still a mystery. Many scientists contend the Red Planet atmosphere thinned over the eons as the sun eroded some of the lighter molecules away. Some others have said that perhaps the water flows we see on Mars are indicative of glacial water-type flows we have observed in high Arctic regions. More ground science will be needed to learn the history of water on Mars.

In the meantime, several spacecraft are en route to Mars to learn more about its history and current conditions. One of the leads in the search for life will be NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is expected to land in 2021 and cache the most promising samples for some return mission to Earth, where we can examine the sample cores in high detail. This mission would happen somewhere around the end of the decade, if all goes to plan.

This latest research from PSI was published in the journal Icarus.

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