In November 2016, NASA announced that they found a huge water ice deposit in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars. If you follow news about the Red Planet, you might think, “Big whoop. We’ve known there’s water ice there for years.” Not so fast: there’s something special about this particular ice that could make future Mars missions much easier.
Why It’s Special?
This particular deposit spans an area larger than the state of New Mexico and contains more water than Lake Superior, the largest of the U.S. Great Lakes. Even at that size, it contains less than 1% of all known water on Mars. But its size isn’t why it’s important; it’s the way it formed. The deposit is in a relatively low latitude, which is where spacecraft usually aim when they land. It also sits on a flat, smooth region that makes landing easier than in some of the less forgiving places we’ve found ice before. This means that future explorers could easily stop there and use the ice as a life-giving resource.
How we found it?
For years, researchers had been intrigued by the patterns they saw in the surface of Utopia Planitia. Polygon-shaped cracks and rimless pits looked eerily similar to those in the Canadian Arctic, where ice sits just below the ground. They used a ground-penetrating radar instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to look deep into the surface layers of the planet. It took more than 600 passes of the orbiter and a lot of analysis, but in the end the researchers’ hunches turned out to be correct.