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Mid-latitude ice on Mars: A science target for planetary climate histories and an exploration target for in situ resources

April 30, 2021

In the last decade, aided by the high-resolution data and long-term monitoring by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and other spacecraft, extensive evidence has emerged supporting the presence of abundant H2O ground ice throughout much of the mid-latitudes of Mars. Growing evidence indicates that much of this ice is relatively pure, exists within a few meters of the surface, and reaches lower latitudes than previously thought, potentially providing an accessible record of the recent climate and a large in situ resource for future human exploration of Mars. We are reaching the limits of currently available datasets, however, just as we are starting to unlock the climate record and determine the water resources contained within the Martian mid-latitudes. A comprehensive understanding of the nature of this ice would significantly enhance our understanding of Mars’ climate history and total water budget, as well as the effects of orbital/axial forcing on volatiles. In this regard, Mars is a testbed for comparative planetary climate studies, including for exoplanets; these studies are particularly valuable because Mars has many similarities to Earth but lacks the complicating effects of oceans and a biosphere, such that orbital/axial forcing dominates climate variability.

Quantifying the volumes, distribution, and properties of the water ice are crucial for addressing two overarching questions in the next decade:
1. What climate record is preserved in mid-latitude ice deposits on Mars?
2. How accessible is the ice as a resource for future exploration?

New missions will enable us to capitalize on the major discoveries of the last decade and take the next giant leap in the upcoming decade to address these questions.