Erosion can take many forms. The most commonly known is water wearing down the sides of streams or lakes. But wind can erode just as effectively, especially if it carries dust particles that can eat away at otherwise solid objects. Although this wind-driven process is most often seen on Earth, it plays a role in the history of most other rocky bodies that have an atmosphere. Recently, a team of scientists from the Planetary Science Institute found evidence of some erosion between 50,000 and a few million years ago in the polar ice cap of Mars. It’s a snap by geological standards.
Regardless of their age, the patterns created by the eroded winds are breathtaking, spiraling into what looks like a fractal pattern seen through the eyes of some digital mapping software. The area affected by the winds is also absolutely huge, representing 10 times the total volume of the Grand Canyon.
Spiral patterns are actually hollows in the ice that form as a by-product of erosion processes. These erosion processes actually cut chunks of the polar ice cap, exposing long buried ice that is otherwise inaccessible. Models of the ice cap suggest that this newly accessible ice could hold other interesting findings if human or robotic explorers are able to access it.
One potential discovery is to see whether the water stored in the polar ice cap is fresh water or not. Much of the water readily available on Mars has dissolved dangerous chemicals, such as perchlorates, which make it unsuitable for human use. Purifying this water to make it usable would be both energy-intensive and time-consuming, which will also not be in abundance in any of the early Martian colonies.
Alternatively, the models suggest that the ice exposed as part of the ice cap erosion process has never been kept in liquid form, and therefore may be free of the impurities that plague other water sources on the planet. red. If so, the polar cap itself could serve as a reservoir for humanity’s water needs when human explorers finally set foot on Mars.
Another discovery is more scientific than practical, but interesting nonetheless. Models also suggest that the new ice on display is ancient, dating back hundreds of millions of years. On Earth, scientists regularly drill ice cores to collect data on the paleoclimate – the planet’s climate that occurred before humans began to keep records. Unfortunately, these techniques have only been useful for a few million years due to the constantly changing climate of the Earth.
Alternatively, the ice cores exposed by erosion on Mars could be traced back hundreds of millions of years, as they did not melt and reform repeatedly during this period, as the cores did on Earth. It would be the equivalent of looking back on the climate to the days of the dinosaurs on Earth. It would provide a glimpse of the Red Planet’s climate beyond almost any tool currently available on Earth.
This additional information is only accessible if we are able to access the exposed ice. At this time, no mission is planned specifically to search for these exposed ice packs. But if the erosion process continues, there could be even newer pockets to explore when humans finally surrender.
PSI – Huge spiral hollows on Mars are young, formed by erosion
Nature Science Reports – North polar trough formed due to in situ erosion as a source of young ice in mid latitudinal mantles on Mars
UT – How old is the ice on the North Pole of Mars?
UT – Here is the best place for explorers to harvest Martian ice
The image on the left is a digitally enhanced image of the northern polar ice cap of Mars, specifically highlighting the eroded trough spirals. Red dots indicate mounds and depressions. There is an inset from the Big Island of Hawaii for the scale. The top right image is zoomed in equivalent in size to the Grand Canyon (see bottom right).
credit: MOLA Science Team, MSS, JPL, NASA.