Everything we know about the red planet says water isn’t thermodynamically stable at low altitudes, but a team lead by researcher Jack Wilson, John Hopkins University, has now suggested that this might be wrong.
And this new information could be groundbreaking for any future Mars missions.
The images in question were first collected by the neutron spectrometer instrument on NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft (the agency’s longest-operating Mars orbiter) between 2002 and 2009.
But have recently undergone some serious editing.
Wilson’s team were able to reduce blurring and remove ‘noise’ from the imaging data, improving the spacial resolution from approximately 320 miles to 180 miles, allowing us all a closer look.
“It was as if we’d cut the spacecraft’s orbital altitude in half,” Wilson said, “and it gave us a much better view of what’s happening on the surface.”
As a result they were now able to see evidence of ‘significant hydration’ near the equator, located between the northern lowlands and southern highlands along the Medusae Fossae Formation.
Spotting unexpectedly high quantities of hydrogen gathering at high latitudes, the planetary scientists knew this was a sign of buried water ice much lower down (even though the spectrometer itself can’t directly detect water).
This revelation is so mysterious because although hydrogen was always known to exist higher in the atmosphere, as confirmed by 2008 NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, but it was thought that this was impossible closer to the surface.
Indeed the team wonders how the water could be preserved there, with some speculations suggesting that it is only being held there by an ice and dust mixture cycled through the atmosphere the polar areas.
But those conditions last occurred hundreds of thousands of millions years ago and any ice deposited there should be long gone.
“Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain,” Wilson added.
Regardless of how the mysterious signature came to be there, the presence of water ice on Mars could potentially overhaul the entire way Mars missions are carried out.
As an accessible supply of water ice near the equator would mean the amount of delivered mass (brought on rockets) would be greatly reduced as the astronauts could use Martian natural resources for a water supply and as raw material for producing hydrogen fuel.