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Seasonal variations are being used by scientists to locate water for future Mars astronauts

An international team of researchers has used seasonal variations to identify likely sub-surface deposits of water ice in the temperate regions of Mars where it would be easiest for future human explorers to survive. The findings were published in the journal Science. Dr. Germán Martnez will present the findings at the European Planetary Science Conference (EPSC) 2021, which will take place this week in Vienna.

Using data from NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has spent nearly two decades orbiting the Red Planet, Martnez and his colleagues have identified two areas of particular interest on the planet: Hellas Planitia in the southern hemisphere and Utopia Rupes in the northern hemisphere, respectively. Seasonal variations in the levels of hydrogen detected suggest that significant amounts of water ice can be found a meter or so below the surface in these regions, based on the seasonal variations in the levels of hydrogen detected.

"Data from Mars Odyssey's Neutron Spectrometer showed signs of hydrogen beneath the surface of Mars from mid-latitudes to equatorial latitudes, but we still had the challenge of determining whether this hydrogen was in the form of water ice, which can be readily used as a resource, or whether it was locked away in mineral salts or in soil grains and minerals." This is where the seasonal variation plays an important role in providing important clues. "Because the coldest ground temperatures occur at the same time as the greatest observed increase in hydrogen content, it appears that water ice is forming in the shallow subsurface of these regions during the fall and winter seasons, and then sublimating into gas during the warm season of each hemisphere," says the author.

Water ice in the shallow subsurface has been discovered in abundance at the poles, indicating that the subsurface is abundant. Polar regions, on the other hand, are a hostile environment for human exploration because of the frigid temperatures and limited solar illumination. The areas between the equatorial and mid-latitudes are much more hospitable for both humans and robotic rovers, but only deeper reservoirs of water ice have been discovered so far, and these are difficult to reach by human or robotic means.

It is not possible to send regular supplies across the 55 million kilometers that separate Earth and Mars at their closest point in order for astronauts to survive on Mars. Instead, they would have to rely on resources that are already available on the planet. Due to the fact that liquid water is not available in the cold and arid Martian environment, ice is an extremely valuable resource. Besides being essential for the survival of the explorers and the growth of plants and food, water has the potential to break down into oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel.

The Tharsis Montes and the Medusae Fossae Formation are two other regions that are abundant in hydrogen. These, on the other hand, do not exhibit seasonal variations and appear to be the more difficult to access sources of water.

"Certainly, those areas would be interesting for future missions," Martnez continued. "What we intend to do now for them, or for Hellas Planitia and Utopia Rupes, is to investigate their mineralogy with other instruments in the hope of identifying types of rock that have been altered by water." Since the ingredients for rocket fuel would be readily available in such locations, robotic missions, including sample return missions, would be ideal candidates for such locations."

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