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Mars' Arcadia Planitia
The area of Mars outlined by the white box, in Arcadia Planitia, is considered a tempting target for human settlement due to the availability of water ice. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Graphic)

A newly published survey pinpointing where Martian water ice is likely to lie close to the surface could serve as a roadmap for establishing the first human settlement.

  • The survey, published in Geophysical Research Letters, is based on readings from the Mars Climate Sounder on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, plus the Thermal Emission Imaging System and Gamma Ray Spectrometer on the Mars Odyssey orbiter. Those readings point to water ice deposits that could lie within a foot, or even an inch, of the surface. “You wouldn’t need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel,” the survey’s lead author, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release.
  • Such ice would be a valuable resource for a Martian settlement — not only because it would provide drinking water, but also because the H2O could be converted into breathable oxygen as well as rocket fuel. A region known as Arcadia Planitia, in Mars’ northern hemisphere, emerged as the most tempting target. That same region was the focus of a picture-taking campaign a few months ago, aimed at selecting sites for future human missions.
  • NASA has been working with SpaceX on the issue of Martian site selection. NASA says it plans to start sending astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s, while SpaceX is targeting an even earlier time frame. If all proceeds according to plan, SpaceX would start sending its Starship super-rocket to Mars in the mid-2020s, with an initial robotic mission setting the stage for the first human settlers to follow.
This color-coded map shows underground water ice on Mars. Cool colors are closer to the surface than warm colors. Black zones indicate areas where a spacecraft would sink into fine dust. The outlined box represents the ideal region to send astronauts for them to dig up water ice. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU Graphic)
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