Ice on Mars: More Than They Ever Thought

Sep 25, 2009 11:26am

Note to self: whenever you make a cool scientific finding, try not to do it on a day when there's an even cooler finding. Yesterday, while NASA was talking about those intriguing traces of water in the moon's soil, other parts of NASA were talking about lots more water — lying frozen just beneath the surface on Mars.  There was coverage of it — click HERE — just not as much as there was of the moon.  Last year the Phoenix Mars Lander set down near the Martian north pole, and found what was apparently ice in trenches it dug with its robot arm.  Now, say Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona and fellow researchers in a paper in SCIENCE, it appears there is a layer of frost beneath much of the Martian surface, probably coming within 40 degrees of the planet's equator.  It may be as little as ten inches beneath the surface in many places.  Over at Wired, Alexis Madrigal raises an intriguing notion.  In 1976, the first two American ships to land on Mars, Vikings 1 and 2, reported that Mars was arid — and as a result, NASA all but ignored the planet for a generation. The Vikings had robot arms, but they could only dig about six inches down, enough to get a soil sample to deposit in experiments on board the spacecraft.  Madrigal says if you take Byrne et al's estimates literally, then Viking 2, which landed 48 degrees north of the equator, may have missed that buried layer of ice by 3-4 inches. What if it had been designed to dig a little deeper?  What if they'd struck pay dirt?  How would the course of planetary exploration have been changed?

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