Identifying Key Regions for Harnessing Subsurface Water-Ice Resources on Mars

Candidate new impact site on Arcadia with possible ice exposure. Credit: HiRISE, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which focuses on the extraction and purification of natural resources to sustain exploration, is of great importance for future landed missions and potential habitation of extraterrestrial worlds. The subsurface water-ice reservoirs on the Moon and Mars are prime candidates for ISRU as water is important for sustaining human activities on another planet and for production of fuel for returning spacecraft to Earth. NASA’s Perseverance rover, due to land on the surface of Mars on February 18, carries an instrument known as MOXIE — Mars OXygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment — whose purpose is to demonstrate a new technology for ISRU. MOXIE will attempt to generate consumable oxygen (O2) by electrochemically splitting carbon dioxide (CO2) from the martian atmosphere. Additionally, ISRU-related missions such as Luna 27, a collaboration between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency, are in development. There is also broader ISRU technological development supported by NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative.

The Mars Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) project was formed in 2018 with the goal of providing the planetary science community with maps of the distribution of ice resources on Mars. In a perspective paper published in Nature Astronomy this month, Gareth Morgan of the Planetary Science Institute and colleagues from several other institutions have compiled data regarding subsurface water-ice deposits. This compilation includes four independent remote-sensing datasets collected by multiple spacecraft, involving neutron detection, thermal analysis, geomorphic mapping, and radar surface density and subsurface dielectric analysis. The SWIM project focused on data collected from the northern hemisphere because it broadly satisfies mission landing and operational considerations and has previously been identified as a region containing surface ice. The team concluded that the most likely regions for locating subsurface water ice are the plains of the Arcadia region and the glacial networks across Deuteronilus Mensae as they satisfied the largest number of identified remote-sensing criteria. This investigation revealed a diverse range of potential landing sites for future missions focused on the exploration and extraction of water-ice resources and highlights the utility of combining multiple remote-sensing datasets to identify regions containing resources for ISRU. READ MORE