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Thick water ice found buried at Mars’ equator is enough to cover entire planet in water
By Cassie B. // Feb 26, 2024

In one of the most thrilling discoveries in our solar system in recent times, the Mars Express orbiter has detected a significant amount of water ice buried beneath the equator of Mars – and there’s so much there that it could cover the entire planet in an ocean if it melted.

The probe is part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission, which has been conducting research on the planet for two decades. Although it is not the first time that evidence has pointed to the presence of ice at Mars’ equator beneath the Medusae Fossae Formation, this is the biggest deposit of ice found there by far.

The ESA reports that the dusty ice under the Red Planet’s equator is very thick, extending around 2.3 miles underground with a top layer of hardened ash that is hundreds of meters thick. If it were to melt, it could supply enough water to plunge Mars into an ocean of somewhere between 5 and 9 feet deep. Their findings were published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Until recently, scientists had thought the deposit may be made up of volcanic ash, but now it appears to be water ice, an idea that is supported by the similarity of its geographical features to those found at Martian polar ice caps.

Lead Researcher Thomas Watters of the Smithsonian Institution said: "Excitingly, the radar signals match what we expect to see from layered ice and are similar to the signals we see from Mars' polar caps, which we know to be very ice rich.”

There are several theories about how water ice could have ended up buried beneath Mars’ equator, and sub-surface ice has been found on numerous occasions on the planet it in the past. For example, NASA’s Phoenix mission dug up ice below the surface at its polar landing site back in 2008, while NASA’s Mars Odyssey found signs pointing to the presence of water a year later.

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Many questions remain about water on Mars

There are still plenty of questions, however. Mars Express Project Scientist Colin Wilson said in a statement: "This latest analysis challenges our understanding of the Medusae Fossae Formation, and raises as many questions as answers. How long ago did these ice deposits form, and what was Mars like at that time?"

He added: "If confirmed to be water ice, these massive deposits would change our understanding of Mars' climate history. Any reservoir of ancient water would be a fascinating target for human or robotic exploration."

As Mars exploration has advanced during the last few decades, the previous scientific understanding of the planet has evolved significantly. Now, there is evidence throughout the planet that water was a major feature in the past, running across the surface in rivers or collecting in oceans and lakes – although there is currently no liquid water on the planet that we are aware of.

Another great mystery is what happened to all that water; is it somehow sequestered within the planet, or did it evaporate into space?

The amount and location of water on Mars is an important question for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that humans will need water to survive when they eventually go to the planet. Ready access to liquid water present on the planet will reduce the amount they need to bring with them, which will ease the logistics of such a trip.

With the water in the Medusae Fossae Formation sitting under several hundred meters of dust, however, it will not be something humans can access. Nevertheless, it is an exciting discovery that is driving hope that more water could be hiding somewhere else on the Red Planet.

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