This is not the first time ice has been found on Mars. But the size and location of the frozen water has been uncertain, and no robotic probes have yet been able to find or extract any samples from the surface of our planetary neighbor.
Erosion has exposed eight ice sites, some as shallow as a few feet (one meter) below the surface, and going as deep as 100 meters or more, researchers said.
The surface of the planet had been mapped by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in much detail and Dundas and his colleagues used its pictures to locate exposed ice in small craters, glaciers and ice sheets. The ice cliffs provide a cross-section of the climate over the ages, much like the rings in a tree. The 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. "Something caused [the ice] to be deposited and then deposited again", and that thing is most likely to be snowfall.
"Our interpretation is that this is consolidated snow deposited in geologically recent times", Dundas said.
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The findings were reported this week in the journal Science.
"Here we have what we think is nearly pure water ice buried just below the surface".
'Humans need water wherever they go, and it's very heavy to carry with you, ' said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson, a co-author on today's report.
"Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need", Byrne said.
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The sites are in both northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at latitudes from about 55 to 58 degrees, equivalent on Earth to Scotland or the tip of South America.
The ice deposits could help scientists glean more information about underground ice sheets in the middle latitudes of Mars, which had previously gone undetected. "It's also much closer to places humans would probably land as opposed to the polar caps, which are very inhospitable".
Eight scarps, with slopes as steep as 55 degrees, reveal new information about the internal layered structure of previously detected underground ice sheets in Mars' middle latitudes, the United States space agency said.
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