Knowing more about Mars's ice deposits is crucial to planning a visit and eventually building a permanent base.
"This ice is a critical target for science and exploration: it affects modern geomorphology, is expected to preserve a record of climate history, influences the planet's habitability, and may be a potential resource for future exploration", the study says. "It's like having one of those ant farms where you can see through the glass on the side to learn about what's usually hidden beneath the ground". They could also make for accessible sites to extract water for human use, although that would obviously conflict with studying the ice's layers for clues to the past.
The researchers used photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to locate exposed ice from sections of the surface where hillsides have naturally eroded. At some of them, the exposed deposit of water ice is more than 100 yards, or meter, thick.
Analyzing these features with a filter that accentuates colors, a team of researchers saw something notable for the Red Planet: a number of them had a distinctively blue color.
"Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need", said co-author Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. Fours years later, scientists presented evidence that the streaks were caused by hydrated minerals that flowed down the slopes in the Martian warm seasons.
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While scientists have known that Mars is a pretty icy place for years, the new study helps confirm exactly where those ice sheets exist on the red planet. Water used to flow freely on Mars.
Thick deposits cover broad regions of the Martian mid-latitudes with a smooth mantle; erosion in these regions creates scarps that expose the internal structure of the mantle.
Of probably wider public interest, however, is that the ice shelves "might even be a useful source of water for future human exploration of the red planet", they said.
The new data, collected in high-resolution three-dimensional images from two US satellites, reveal at least eight locations where massive shelves of water ice are deposited from just below the Martian surface as far deep as 100 meters, or roughly 330 feet, according to the report, which was published in the journal Science.
Over time, what first began as snow is "compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice", the study says.