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Utopia Planitia on Mars
This vertically exaggerated view shows scalloped depressions in a part of Mars where such textures prompted researchers to check for buried ice, using ground-penetrating radar. They found about as much frozen water as the volume of Lake Superior. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona Photo)

Scientists say there’s enough water in just one region of Mars to fill up Lake Superior – if only it could be extracted from subsurface ice.

So how can future Red Planet settlers take advantage of those deposits to produce the drinkable water, breathable oxygen and hydrogen-based rocket fuel they’ll need? Researchers at the University of Washington are working on a way.

Their research builds upon a technology that was pioneered almost two decades ago, known as the water vapor adsorption reactor, or WAVAR. Adam Bruckner, a professor in UW’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, worked with students to develop a device that could extract tiny amounts of water vapor from the Martian atmosphere.

The WAVAR device was successfully tested in Mars-type conditions, but there wasn’t any funding to move the technology beyond proof of concept.

“NASA has not really funded in-situ resource utilization for research work on that at all,” Bruckner told GeekWire. WAVAR does make a cameo, however, in the fictional tale of Red Planet settlement depicted in “Mars,” a miniseries airing on National Geographic Channel.

Meanwhile, Bruckner has taken the concept in a different direction. Instead of trying to draw trickles of water out of Mars’ air, he’s looking into using microwaves to cook water out of Mars’ soil.

“It’s a natural WAVAR,” Bruckner said.

The process could be workable for places like Utopia Planitia, where researchers say a lake’s worth of water lies frozen in the soil across an area wider than the state of New Mexico.

Their estimate is based on readings from a ground-penetrating radar instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The radar data point to a deposit that ranges in thickness from 260 to 560 feet, beneath a layer of soil that’s 3 to 33 feet thick.

“This deposit probably formed as snowfall accumulating into an ice sheet mixed with dust, during a period in Mars history when the planet’s axis was more tilted than it is today,” Cassie Stuurman, a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, said in a NASA news release. Stuurman is the lead author of a report on the find in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Map of water in Utopia Planitia
Diagonal striping on this map of a portion of Mars’ Utopia Planitia region indicates the area where a large subsurface deposit rich in water ice was assessed using the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Rome / ASI / PSI Graphic)

The deposit isn’t made of pure, clear ice. Rather, it’s thought to be about 50 to 85 percent water ice, mixed in with dust or rocks.

Conditions on Mars are such that if you just dug up the deposit, the exposed water ice would turn directly into water vapor. But Bruckner’s concept calls for placing a dome over the soil, injecting microwaves to heat up the soil particles, liberating the water and capturing the moisture.

Bruckner and his colleagues at UW aren’t the only ones taking this tack. Other ventures, including Alabama-based Space Resources Extraction Technology, have been working on similar methods to cook the water out of icy soil on Mars or the moon. NASA is even planning to send an oxygen-extraction experiment called MOXIE to Mars in 2020.

For more than a decade, “following the water” has been NASA’s mantra for Mars exploration. The University of Texas’ Joe Levy, a co-author of the study in Geophysical Research Letters, hopes that all that frozen water will play a role in building Mars’ future as well as understanding its past.

“The ice deposits in Utopia Planitia aren’t just an exploration resource,” Levy said. “They’re also one of the most accessible climate change records on Mars. We don’t understand fully why ice has built up in some areas of the Martian surface and not in others. Sampling and using this ice with a future mission could help keep astronauts alive, while also helping them unlock the secrets of Martian ice ages.”

The six-episode “Mars” miniseries airs on Mondays on the National Geographic Channel. Check local listings for times. More than a dozen featurettes, including a half-hour prequel titled “Before Mars,” are available for viewing via the website and National Geographic’s YouTube channel.

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