We once thought of Mars as a dried up husk of a planet with no significant water resources on its surface. After further study, scientists have discovered the Red Planet has vast amounts of water ice, and there may even be some water flowing on its surface. Mars’ water reserves may even be more accessible than we believed. A new analysis of past NASA data points to water ice near the Martian equator where scientists thought it could not exist.
NASA didn’t have to send a new probe to Mars to figure this out. In fact, the instrument used to obtain this data has long since been retired. Scientists reevaluated data from the NASA Odyssey Spacecraft, which was in operation between 2002 and 2009. The goal of this mission was to map the surface of Mars while also looking for evidence of water. It was used to identify landing sites for surface missions, and to this day still acts as a data relay for the Curiosity rover.
Odyssey’s data suggested there was water ice on Mars based on the telltale signature of hydrogen on the planet’s surface, but scientists needed direct confirmation. NASA offered that confirmation in 2008 when the Phoenix lander touched down near the north polar ice cap and detected water. At the time, mission scientists believed that hydrogen detected by the probe’s Neutron Spectrometer around the equatorial region was simply a sign of hydrated mineral deposits. The new analysis of Odyssey data says that may, in fact, be more water.
The team used image reconstruction techniques that were not available a decade ago in order to reduce noise in the data. This improved the resolution of the data from 320 miles to just 180 miles–a nearly 100 percent improvement. The improved data processing pointed to even higher levels of hydrogen around the equator, which is indicative of water and not mineral deposits.
We don’t have enough data to say for certain there’s more water around the Martian equator, but we are trending in that direction. The mechanism for preserving ice at the equator is unclear. The team suggests ice may have been transported from the poles and buried at a time when Mars had a steeper axial tilt, but more research is needed.
The presence of water at this altitude could be of great help to future manned Mars missions. Water is necessary for human survival, but it’s also useful in making fuel for a return trip to Earth. Having vast deposits of water far away from the poles would simplify the process of gathering water on Mars.