A potential landing site on Mars could be sheltered by debris-covered glaciers.
Strange curved features of a flat plain known as Arcadia Planitia are strikingly similar to ice streams in ice sheets in Antarctica, opens a new study. If these shallow-covered glaciers actually exist, they could be the reason for directing future missions to Mars to the region. The place was already intriguing for SpaceX and NASA because it is a wide, flat plain that is ideal for landing spacecraft. If there is ice not too deep below the surface of the plane, astronauts can also easily have a water source.
The newly discovered flow-like characteristics are strange because they occur on level ground, said study leader Shannon Hibbard, a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
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Mysterious forms of relief
Arcadia Planitia is in the northern lowlands of Mars. Over the last 3 billion years, active lava flows have smoothed over this region, so it is far less crammed with craters than other parts of the planet. Data collected from orbit over the years show that the earth in the region is rich in hydrogen. Because water is made of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, this hydrogen suggests the presence of water ice just below the surface.
For decades, scientists have noticed features of Mars that appear to be related to ice. Along the low hills there are aprons of debris, known as lobed features because of their shape, which resemble the flow of glaciers covered with a thin layer of rocks. There are also grooved patterns in the ravines that look like glaciers flowing through valleys The Earth.
Similar characteristics are observed in Arcadia Planitia, Hibbard said. Lobat features are found near a set of mountains known as Erebus Montes that rise from the plain. Sinuistic features of a snake through low-lying areas. She and her colleagues gathered observations from a number of different instruments to try to identify these characteristics. This includes orbital images, thermal data showing surface temperature during the day and night, albedo data that reveals the reflectivity of the surface, information on the dust cover, and elevation and topography data.
Hibbard said the curved lines were a big mystery because they looked like they were made by an ice stream, but the terrain was not steep enough to explain why the ice would move.
“We had to try to figure out what the hell they are, why they have the thermal signatures they have, why they’re so bright both day and night, why they seem to have flow characteristics, why they’re channeled, why they occur. near the aprons of lobate debris? ” she said.
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The analysis suggests that these characteristics are actually of glacial origin. The curved shapes looked similar to other characteristics associated with the slow-flowing material seen on Mars, Hibbard said, and data show that these spots are indeed rich in ice.
The most curved features, Hibbard said, are ice flows in the Earth’s ice sheets, which are mostly found in Antarctica. These faster-moving ice streams are not well understood on Earth, Hibbard said, much less Mars, but they show an example of ice flowing in fairly flat terrain.
This is a contradictory statement, Hibbard said, because most icy streams on Earth require at least a thin layer of liquid water at their base to crush their flow. It is not clear whether subglacial water exists or has ever existed on Mars, she said, nor is it clear whether a moist base will be needed to make icy currents flow across the Red Planet. One possibility is that in the past, when the orbit of Mars was tilted differently from today and its climate was different, subglacial melting could have occurred.
“Ice flows are something that could be on Mars and may suggest that more complex glacial processes have occurred on Mars, which I think is really interesting,” Hibbard said.
The next step, she said, is to explore the terrain surrounding these curves for more evidence. Arcadia Planitia has never been studied except from orbit, but it could be an exciting place to send future missions to Mars, she added.
“It would be an interesting place to land not only because of the availability of water ice and the abundance of water ice, but also because of the scientific value,” Hibbard said.
The study appears in the May issue of the journal Icarus.
Originally published in Live Science.