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Thick bands of ice (blue) have been spotted in steep cliff faces.
For more than a decade, Colin Dundas, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, has had a daily routine: inspecting a dozen or so high-resolution images beamed back every day from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). A few years ago, something surprising popped out from the planet’s sea of rust: a pale sliver of blue.
Dundas - Day - Sites - Cliffs - Meters
What Dundas saw that day, and subsequently found at seven other sites, are steep cliffs, up to 100 meters tall, that expose what appears to be nearly pure ice. The discovery points to large stores of underground ice buried only a meter or two below the surface at surprisingly low martian latitudes. “This kind of ice is more widespread than previously thought,” says Dundas, who, with his co-authors, describes the cliffs this week in Science. Each cliff seems to be the naked face of a glacier, tantalizing scientists with the promise of a layer-cake record of past martian climates and space enthusiasts with a potential resource for future human bases.
Finding ice on Mars is nothing new. Ice covers the poles, and a radar instrument on the MRO has detected signatures of thick, buried ice across the planet’s belly. Some researchers suggested these deposits could be the remnants of glaciers that existed millions of years ago when the planet’s spin axis and orbit were different. But the depth of the ice and whether it exists as relatively pure sheets or as granules frozen in the pore spaces of martian soil have been uncertain.
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