Ice Caps Discovered at Mars’ North Pole Sheds Light Into the Planet’s History

Scientists from the University of Texas and University of Arizona spotted sheets of ice underneath Mars’ surface. The ice cap is located in the planet’s north pole, and it could be one of the biggest water basins on the Red Planet.

The discovery has been made by using calculations collected by the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The tool used sends radar waves that can infiltrate into Mars’ surface down to a mile and a half.

According to the team of scientists that found the ice caps, this is a significant discovery because the sheets of ice suggest that Mars could have once been a suitable place for life. By analyzing the geometry and content of these ice layers, researchers could find out whether the environment was favorable for life or not.

Researchers discovered sheets of ice and sand that held up to 90 percent water in a few areas. To have a better image of the amount of ice found, scientists explained that if melted, it would surround the Red Planet in at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) deep water.

The discoveries were confirmed by independent research utilizing gravity data rather than radar. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University conducted the research, and both studies have been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Authors of both studies believe that the tiers composed when the ice gathered at the poles in the last ice age on Mars. Every time the planet heated, a part of the ice caps were closed under layers of sand, which protected the ice against solar radiation and stopped it from evaporating into the air.

Researchers have known for some time about the glacial occurrences on Mars, which happen because of the planet’s orbit and angle. Mars inclined toward the sun during approximately 50,000 years, before progressively returning to its initial position. When a planet rotates upright, the equator is turned towards the sun, which allows the ice caps to expand. As the planet spins, the polar caps withdraw, sometimes totally disappearing.

Researchers have believed, until now, that the glacial caps vanished, but the study shows that there are considerable ice layers fragments that survived underneath the surface, caught in moving layers of sand and ice.

Co-author of the study and professor at Lunar & Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona, Jack Holt stated that the research offers new and significant data into the trade of water ice among the midlatitudes and the poles, where his research team previously discovered widespread glaciers by utilizing the SHARAD tool.

Holt said that the total amount of water found underneath the surface of Mars is similar to all the water already known to be present in glaciers and hidden ice sheets at lower latitudes. These water basins are about the same age as well.

Stefano Nerozzi from University of Texas Institute of Geophysics, who is concluding its Ph.D. at the Jackson School of Geosciences and co-author of the studies said that analyzing this data could tell them whether Mars was ever a favorable environment for life.

The planet could have had a suitable environment for life, but if the majority of the water were trapped at the poles, it would have been hard to have enough volumes of water at the equator, Nerozzi said.

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