It’s been a generally-agreed fact for years that Mars is hiding significant ice deposits. But the size and location of the frozen water has been uncertain, and no robotic probes have yet been able to find or extract any samples from the surface of our planetary neighbor.

But according to researchers who have analyzed imagery from two orbiting satellites, a number of sites on the planet are harboring huge “cliffs” of ice, exposed on the surface and hundreds of feet tall.

The researchers used photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to locate exposed ice from sections of the surface where hillsides have naturally eroded. The erosion has created huge cliffs of ice, up to 300 feet tall in some cases.

Not only are the ice reserves a significant discovery for any potential manned mission to Mars — finding water, or hydrogen and oxygen for breathing and rocket fuel, would be much easier — but it can also provide researchers with vital clues about how Mars’ climate has changed over the years. The ice cliffs provide a cross-section of the climate over the ages, much like the rings in a tree.

“We’ve found a new window into the ice for study, which we hope will be of interest to those interested in all aspects of ice on Mars and its history,” said Colin Dundas, a researcher at the US Geological Survey and the lead author of a paper outlining the findings, published today in Science. “Something caused [the ice] to be deposited and then deposited again,” and that thing is most likely to be snowfall.

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