Mars is too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface, but a wealth of ice may exist just beneath the surface in certain regions. Future human missions to Mars could use this ice as a resource and study it to learn about the planet’s past.
The Italian Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA have announced they intend to develop a plan for a robotic Mars ice mapping mission. Together, the agencies will create a team that will work on the mission concept.
It’s known as the Mars Ice Mapper mission and could include four orbiters. If the mission concept gets the green light from the agencies, it could launch by 2026.
Together, these orbiters would be able to find ice deposits below the surface of Mars, noting their depth, location, distribution and abundance. One orbiter equipped with radar could also gather information on how accessible these ice deposits could be, essentially detecting if the surface dust and rocky layers around them might pose a tough barrier.
The first human missions to Mars will likely consist of 30 days of surface exploration. Not only could the orbiters help determine landing sites for these missions, but their data could also be used to define the science goals for the missions as well.
Astronauts on Mars could take cores from these ice deposits, which may indicate if life ever existed on Mars.
Later missions with longer expeditions on the Martian surface could use this map of ice deposits to study the climate and geology of Mars, avoid any hazardous terrain and use them as resources.
Ice can be used to derive hydrogen and oxygen for fuel, as well as mining; agriculture; manufacturing; maintaining any habitats the astronauts use; and, of course, as a good backup for any life support systems.
Transporting water to Mars would be heavy and costly, so using local ice on the red planet could mitigate some of the challenges of carrying this resource.
The concept could grow to include other agencies and commercial partnerships.
“This innovative partnership model for Mars Ice Mapper combines our global experience and allows for cost sharing across the board to make this mission more feasible for all interested parties,” said Jim Watzin, NASA’s senior advisor for agency architectures and mission alignment, in a statement.
“Human and robotic exploration go hand in hand, with the latter helping pave the way for smarter, safer human missions farther into the solar system. Together, we can help prepare humanity for our next giant leap — the first human mission to Mars.”
Any scientific data gathered by the orbiters would be shared with the world, both for research benefits as well as general reconnaissance of Mars.
Before any human missions to Mars, NASA is sending astronauts back to the moon under the Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the next man on the unexplored lunar South Pole by 2024.
Ahead of that mission, NASA plans to send VIPER, or the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, to get a closer look at water ice that is trapped in permanently shadowed parts of this polar region. This ice could also be used to help the Artemis astronauts in a variety of ways — and help NASA understand how to utilize the on-site resources the moon and Mars offer.
The moon is a good proving ground for future missions to Mars, and the VIPER mission is expected to land on the moon in late 2023.
“In addition to supporting plans for future human missions to Mars, learning more about subsurface ice will bring significant opportunities for scientific discovery,” said Eric Ianson, NASA Planetary Science Division Deputy Director and Mars Exploration Program Director, in a statement.
“Mapping near-surface water ice would reveal an as-yet hidden part of the Martian hydrosphere and the layering above it, which can help uncover the history of environmental change on Mars and lead to our ability to answer fundamental questions about whether Mars was ever home to microbial life or still might be today.”