Study: Newly revealed Mars glacier could support human exploration

Mars is slowly revealing its secrets, and a new study of its terrain done 170 million miles away here on Earth has unveiled an anomalous glacier on a flat plain, akin to those found in Antarctica — and it could someday support humans.

Glaciers and other ice have been confirmed on the Mars since 2008, as NASA chronicled at the time, and had been detected back in the 1970s by the Viking probe.

These newly discovered ice floes are in a different part of the planet than the earlier studies, and their properties have intrigued researchers. They’re found in Arcadia Planitia, in the northern lowlands of Mars, where lava flows have smoothed the planet’s surface over the past 3 billion years. This has left any underlying ice closer to the surface, and the flat terrain makes for an easier landing.

“There’s lots of evidence that this is an ice-rich area, but we don’t have any major topographic relief occurring where these sinuous features are,” lead researcher Shannon Hibbard told Live Science. “They’re existing in a pretty flat-lying plane, so that was kind of odd.”

Hibbard, a Ph.D. candidate in geology and planetary science at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), was joined by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and several other institutions.

Once the formations had been detected on Mars, their properties could be studied closer to home, as scientists turned their attention to the similarly situated ice streams of Antarctica, reported GlacierHub out of the Columbia Climate School at Columbia University.

One thing that excites researchers is the possibility of extracting this ice for use as water by future human explorers, and perhaps even settlers, they said in the study, published this month in the journal Icarus. Most of the glaciers on Mars are near slopes, but the flat terrain of the Arcadia Planitia glacier could make it both an ideal landing site and a good place to extract water, since the ice is apparently fairly close to the surface, Universe Today explained.

“Finding possible flow features in this flat-lying region was very exciting,” Hibbard told GlacierHub. “Previous studies have suggested there is a buried ice sheet at our study site, and our evidence of channelized ice within this ice sheet indicates that there are more complex glacial dynamics at hand on Mars.”

While Mars looks dry and dull from where we sit on verdant Earth, it may well have been much different over the eons. A study in January found that Mars may have undergone several ice ages, perhaps as many as 20, over the past several hundred million years, as Earth Sky reported.