Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) project, funded by NASA, has released its fourth and most recent map of underground ice on Mars. NASA officials state that this map will assist mission planners in deciding where to effectively send the first humans.
Since 2017, SWIM, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been gathering data from various missions on the red planet. For the latest map update, scientists relied on data from the Context Camera (CTX) and the High-Resolution Imaging Experiment (HIRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
These tools provide high-resolution images of the Martian terrain. They can identify tiny impact craters on the Martian surface, revealing the ice or so-called polygonal terrain. This type of terrain is where the ice melts and refreezes with the planet’s seasons.
Knowing where ice can be found on Mars is crucial for planning a future crewed mission. Astronauts need to find frozen water, which will provide them with a precious resource so they won’t have to transport large quantities from Earth.
Are the poles the right place?
Everything suggests that the best landing site is near the Martian poles. But engineers don’t want to land the astronauts where it’s too cold either. If it’s too cold, the crew will need to use extra precious energy to keep warm. “If you send humans to Mars, you’ll want to bring them as close to the equator as possible” said Sydney Do (ref.), SWIM’s project manager.
An ideal location, therefore, would be a zone with the lowest possible latitude that still contains accessible ice. And for these reasons, Martian ice maps come in handy. But beyond mission planning, scientists believe they can use maps like SWIM’s to better understand the appearance of Mars.
“The amount of water ice found in locations at Martian mid-latitudes is not uniform. Some regions seem to have more than others, and no one really knows why” said Nathaniel Putzig, co-leader of SWIM at the Planetary Science Institute. “The new SWIM map could lead to new hypotheses about why these variations occur”.