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Buried Ice Water Discovered on Mars (nasa.gov)
338 points by almost_usual on Jan 11, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

In general this is pretty awesome. What we now know are:

1) Earth microbes and soil organisms (worms) can live in hydrated martian soil. (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/mars-soil-earthw...)

2) Food plants can grow in martian soil that has had said organisms added to it.(https://www.nasa.gov/feature/farming-in-martian-gardens)

3) The water to hydrate the soil is already on Mars.(this article)

4) We can build an artificial magnetosphere[1] to protect an area from solar radiation.

So one trip to Mars that can land a small (< 100kW) power plant, organic amendments, tools, and material for a pressurized green house will be able to create a 'farm' on Mars. That is pretty neat.

[1] They designed it for spacecraft propulsion but it has the effect of a shield if installed in a ground station. http://earthweb.ess.washington.edu/space/M2P2/theory.html

That is indeed awesome but I would argue that it also means we would need to undertake a much more thorough search to find out of mars is indeed a dead planet. Once we land a large concentration of biological matter there -- we won't have an opportunity to look again without dealing with massive potential for cross-planetary contamination.

Of course, it's a trade off and it's great news if we ever had to undertake a crash program to get at least a few humans and/or earth originated genetic material off planet with any hope of it surviving without extensive terraforming.

If we want to search Mars for life before we contaminate it then we need to launch a crash program to do so now, because our window is swiftly expiring. Right now a small group with minimal resources (on the to build and launch stuff into space scale) could likely launch a cubesat with some sort of bacterial payload that would eventually get to Mars. Such a stunt is only going to get easier in the next few decades.

Explore Mars, in depth, ASAP, or someone will render the issue moot by starting their own terraforming project on the cheap. (Or the not so cheap. I don't believe Musk's colonization plans -if they ever come to pass- would be able to prevent contamination, no matter how hard they might try.)

>could likely launch a cubesat with some sort of bacterial payload that would eventually get to Mars

Curious how this might work, given the energy required not only to escape Earth's orbit, but to get into another one around Mars and crash into it. It's my understanding that cubesats don't have anything that could do any of that stuff, and a larger craft doing the heavy lifting would be way more complicated.

A solar sail and a bit of patience?

It would take some serious engineering chops to pull it off, but it's not totally implausible.

Sorry, I realize now that I may have sounded sarcastic. I really was curious, this makes sense. Thanks for responding.

We have a big bucket of cash to do exactly that in the Mars2020 rover and other similar initiatives from other countries. It'll culminate with a cache of samples of martian soil returned to earth for experiments. I sincerely doubt anybody, regardless of money, could get a rover there sooner to find soil samples.

Under works: Cliff climbing robots to look at ice and water flows, quads to survey large areas up close and quickly, and man more.

It's progressing as fast as it can, but is often sidetracks by the whims of new administrations (moon! no, Mars! no, Moon!).

They would have to get permission from the launching country, and that launch country would be obligated by the Outer Space Treaty to impose limits on contamination.

The evidence so far predicts that Mars is now sadly dead. The ratios of gases in its thin atmosphere are not consistent with a living planet (no oxygen, and the seasonal methane is probably geological). Ancient Martian life was probably identical to Earth's, due to similar conditions, chemistry and exchange of genetic information between the two planets (and Venus, in addition to life from other solar systems via comets). In the rocks we should find fossils eventually with our current rovers.

It might not be quite as bad as you think. I imagine Martian farmers would be doing something like hydroponics. The soil and water might come from mars but the actual plants grow in tiny, isolated compartments within buildings. I doubt the resource scarcity would allow for anything resembling a more traditional farm.

It's relatively easy to keep macroscopic plants from escaping, the real issue is the smaller stuff like bacteria, which will get everywhere no matter what kind of farm you're running.

Even there, though, they’re going to want to have air tight areas.

"Even there?" Forget the farm, this has nothing to do with farming per se. It doesn't matter if the crew does nothing but eat pre-sealed sterile goop.

The problem is that ensuring a sterile barrier so nothing gets out of your habitat-- especially when spacesuited living humans must pass through regularly -- is somewhere between incredibly expensive and just impossible.

So Earth bacteria will go out and contaminate Mars. sooner or later it would happen. We could still study the original Martian biome, if that exists.

The problem is, with Earth life present on Mars you can no longer be sure that the life you find there wasn't brought in by colonists.

That's such a simplistic view of life.

We would be able to identify an extraterrestrial cell as surely as if it was carrying flashing lights and screaming "I'm an alien". While all life is based on information, and information needs to be somehow encoded in a, let's call it, genetic code, would that code be DNA and RNA based? would in encode proteins, and if so, would the building blocks be the same 20 amino acids that we have an Earth. Would the genes be encoded using the same nucleotites, and would "letter" in the genetic code be encoded by 3 nucleotides? If so, would always the same 3 nucleotides encode the same aminoacid as on Earth? etc, etc.

There are so many places that life could be different, that the chance of mistaking Martian life for terrestrial life is vanishingly small.

What if it turns out that Earth's life and Martian life share the same origin?

Even if it turns out to be the case, there would be two forms of life separated by billions of years of evolution. Mistaking them would be much less likely than mistaking a cell from the wing of fruit fly from an onion peel cell: while on the outside they may look similar, the DNA of the fruit fly has about 170 million base pairs, while the DNA of the onion has 16 billion of them.

But would one kill off the other? They would probably still compete for scarce resources.

Well, if they could be that alike, then it's not much worth studying anyway...

It would be worth studying - if they were much alike, the first obvious questions to answer would be "why" and "which came first".

Worth studying is an interesting term. I've got a bunch of things which are worth fixing, but none of them get prioritised. Would you say that it would be preferable to block the creation of a colony on the basis that it interferes research that might happen one day?

Personally I'd say no.

Didn't mean to imply it; I'm probably the last person on this site to argue against a colony on Mars. But it would be worth it if, during initial construction of the colony and preferably before sending men, we could send over some studies.

I think you've just made a compelling case for why we can make every species on earth extinct, apart from us and 'nothing of value would be lost'.

If that's sarcasm, I think you've exemplified the slippery slope fallacy and the straw-man argument.

Not at all. Your point was that if it is difficult to tell whether a particular organism was of terrestrial or martian origin, it must be so similar to Earth organisms as to be unworthy of study. If so, why bother studying more than one terrestrial organism?

Exactly - like open source food computers! www.openagriculturesupply.com

is this a real concern? it should be relatively easy to distinguish life on earth from life on mars, should it exist. Especially considering it comes from a completely new path of evolution.

Furthermore, a mars station would allow science to be done directly on mars, rather than having payloads of material sent to and from earth.

You should read The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's fiction, but it's one of the most well researched series of novels and is feels incredibly realistic, believable and it has really amazing characters/story to boot.

But this concern is expressed in that series, and it is a real one. The first people we send to Mars will not be visitors. They'll most likely be colonists. They will die there. Once they start to truly colonize (if they survive) we will loose the ability to determine if any microbes we find are Terran or Martian.

We still haven't interacted with all of the life on our own planet. There are things living in the dark places of the world that are difficult for us to reach.

Is it really necessary to preserve potential (but not confirmed) Martian life before establishing a beachhead?

That's my question as well. Judging by this thread, it appears we're not thinking hard enough about the unknowns, like what if Martian life is hostile to the microbes we depend on?

Are we welcome there? Will we have to engineer some kind of virus that's friendly to our life support that wipes out these unfriendly lifeforms?

Don't forget the Roundup.

The original title is "Steep Slopes on Mars Reveal Structure of Buried Ice". The HN title "Buried Ice Water Discovered on Mars" is misleading - we've known about large midlatitude underground ice deposits for some years now.

Right. "Ice water" makes no sense. If anything, "water ice':

> The ice was likely deposited as snow long ago. The deposits are exposed in cross section as relatively pure water ice, capped by a layer one to two yards (or meters) thick of ice-cemented rock and dust.

Right, exactly. The article does contain the phrase "water ice" a few times.

"Ice water" would be something that is served in the restaurants on Mars.

The images are impressively detailed, but first impression is probaby. Water? How do they know from a picture of a cliff?

Water has been confirmed by spectroscopy, thermal imaging and (previously) radar.

From the article:

"Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) confirmed that the bright material is frozen water. A check of the surface temperature using Odyssey's Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera helped researchers determine they're not seeing just thin frost covering the ground.

Researchers previously used MRO's Shallow Radar (SHARAD) to map extensive underground water-ice sheets in middle latitudes of Mars and estimate that the top of the ice is less than about 10 yards beneath the ground surface."

I agree, the SHARAD work was amazing to use mixed mode Radar to image the subsurface ice tomographically (by reconstructing synthetic aperture radar from multiple passes of 2? different radar frequencies from many orbits with limited antenna time).

This is really the first time frozen water (not just frost) has been SEEN with an imaging spectrometer!

I hope so but this type of finding has been wrong before. See the recent discrediting of liquid "brines" on Mars:


Until a rover or other probe tests it directly, I'll remain skeptical.

Incorrect, you're confusing different findings that are totally different areas of research merely because they have "water" in common.

We have long known that there is tons of frozen water on Mars outside of the poles. Through many individual discoveries we've learned about shallow subsurface permafrost over much of Mars; we've learned of a long history of sizable quantities of liquid water on Mars; and we've learned of subsurface glaciers of very ice that are almost entirely water ice by volume. The brines research is still an open question, as in all scientific research there is a back and forth between different interpretations of the given data, it's quite possible it will ultimately not shake out as a valid interpretation (but it's also a bit much to say that the brine theory has been "discredited" merely because an argument was made against it). Regardless, the existence of subsurface glaciers, of which this is an extension of, is a far less controversial result. We know Mars has subsurface water ice, we know some of that is in the form of glaciers, these are merely certain examples of those glaciers that are significantly exposed to the surface.


In 2015, there was this:

"NASA confirms the best-ever evidence for water on Mars" https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2...

From your link:

"This implies that RSL are not fed by large, near-subsurface aquifers, but are instead the result of either small ( < 120 km diameter) aquifers, deliquescence of perchlorate and chlorate salts or dry, granular flows."

Keyword there is "granular flows"

Here's another source for similar findings a few months prior.

"Granular flows at recurring slope lineae on Mars indicate a limited role for liquid water"


I too remain skeptical.

And unfortunately, these glaciers are at relatively high latitudes (50+ degrees). Cutiosity and Opportunity are near the equator.

Also, if this is accurate, how do we know it's water? I mean most likely it is, but is there a potential for it to be some other type of frozen liquid? Potentially a non-drinking one?


Apparently, the first resource to be mined on Mars will be water ice.

We'll have people living in the "belts" working as ice haulers :) There is a great show called "The Expanse" that touches on this.

The book (or rather books) is even better!

Upvoting both of you for referencing The Expanse (And the books, i.e Leviathan Wakes)... It's so good to see something that resembles hard-sci-fi on television.

The Expanse does resemble hard sci-fi. But besides the issue of gravity, its especially the issue of water (ice) where they seem to deviate from reality.

Basically Ceres is made out of ice - why would they need ice haulers to bring ice there; how could there possibly be a water shortage?

This is already covered in the book. The water ice on Ceres had already been used up in the colonisation efforts of Earth and then later: Mars.

Would this water be drinkable if we inhabit Mars?

What it would take to drink water on Mars -- https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/drink-water-mars_us_561...

Nothing that our filters cannot solve. Worst case we distill it and add some minerals back.

A co-author seems to think so:

>The new study ... identifies eight sites where ice is directly accessible, at latitudes with less hostile conditions than at Mars' polar ice caps. "Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need," Byrne said.

Maybe not directly - who knows what's dissolved in there.

Yeah but it wouldn't be that hard to seperate the water.

That looks like the Estonian flag. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Estonia

> "Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need,"

That's so awesome.

Start the reactor. Free Mars.

I swear I saw Hiroko.

I really wish NASA made the joke, "it feels like we knew nothing about Mars? and all of a sudden we achieved Total Recall!!!"

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