NASA data points to Mars underground water source at Arcadia Planitia site

The poles are not the only place where water can be found on the Martian surface. Credit: ESA/DLR/NASA

Mars’s Arcadia Planitia may be hiding buried treasure. A new global map indicates that the region could be harboring a supply of water, mere inches below its surface. 

Armed with fresh data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, researchers identified a promising landing spot for future astronauts. The region is located in the planet’s Northern Hemisphere, and has an ample stash of water ice making it an ideal location for any potential human mission to Mars. 

The poles are not the only place where water can be found on the Martian surface. Credit: ESA/DLR/NASA

A new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters on Dec. 10 details a treasure maps of sorts, pointing to places where researchers believe water ice lurks as little as an inch (2.5 centimeters) below the surface. 

Researchers are trying to narrow down the best places for astronauts to land and this discovery puts Arcadia Planitia near the top of the list. Data also shows that because this is a temperate region, basked in plenty of sunlight, it wouldn’t be difficult to uncover the watery bounty. 

“You wouldn’t need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel,” lead author Sylvain Piqueux, who studies planetary surfaces at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said in a statement

The Mars we see today is a barren, desert world, devoid of water deposits on its surface. That’s because any liquid water that might trickle on its surface evaporates very quickly. Mars’s once ample atmosphere, eroded over time, stripped away by solar particles, resulting in the thin atmosphere we see today. 

As a result, any liquid water on the surface would evaporate immediately when exposed to the thin atmosphere.

This map shows underground water ice on Mars. Cool colors are closer to the surface than warm colors; black zones indicate areas where a spacecraft would sink into fine dust; the outlined box represents the ideal region to send astronauts for them to dig up water ice. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

That doesn’t mean that Mars is completely devoid of any water on its surface. There’s plenty of water trapped in ice caps at the Martian poles. However, this is a viable solution for human missions as the polar regions are too cold and dark to be viable options for landing. And NASA hopes that future human missions will be able to rely on what they call “in-situ resource utilization”, meaning relying on the resources in a given area. 

The new map was created by combining data from two long-running Martian spacecraft: NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey. Each orbiter used onboard heat-sensitive instruments to detect the ice since buried ice changes the temperature of the surface. To corroborate their findings, the scientists cross-referenced their work with other data — like ice seen in radar instruments and Mars Odyssey’s gamma-ray spectrometer, a tool designed to spotting water ice deposits.

The area of Mars outlined by the white box, in Arcadia Planitia, is considered a tempting landing site for future human missions thanks to the availability of subsurface water ice. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Water is a precious commodity and thanks to this new data, NASA is hoping that future missions can land near Arcadia Planitia and use its resources instead of having to travel to the poles and hauling water back. 

The agency hopes that this map will also identify other promising areas. See it’s not just water that the map is locating, it’s also other valuable resources. When broken down into its components (hydrogen and oxygen), astronauts could not only get water to drink, but could also make rocket fuel, thus decreasing the load they would need to haul from Earth.

NASA data points to Mars underground water source at Arcadia Planitia site
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