Since its launch in 2017, the SWIM project has compiled data from various NASA missions to Mars to create a comprehensive map of potential subsurface water ice reservoirs. Martian surfaceThe latest map, marking a significant milestone in this effort, was meticulously developed using data collected by the Context Camera (CTX) and High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HIRISE) instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These cutting-edge tools have provided researchers with high-resolution images of the Martian landscape, allowing them to identify vital clues such as tiny impact craters that may have exposed ice and distinctive “polygonal terrains” formed by the seasonal melting and refreezing of ice.
Understanding the distribution of water ice on Mars is of critical importance for planning future crewed missions to the planet. Astronauts embarking on these missions will rely on water ice as a critical resource, reducing the need to transport large quantities of water from Earth. This could potentially significantly reduce the logistical challenges associated with long-duration missions to Mars.
Yet the task of mission planning is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, astronauts seek to land in areas where water ice is accessible, suggesting that regions near the Martian poles could be favorable. However, mission planners must also consider climatic conditions. Landing in extremely cold regions would require the use of valuable energy resources to keep astronauts warm, an undesirable scenario.
Sydney Do, project manager at SWIM, stressed the importance of landing near the Martian equator: “If you’re sending humans to Mars, you want to get them as close to the equator as possible.” This implies that an optimal landing site would ideally be located at a lower latitude, balancing accessibility to ice resources with more temperate conditions.
The latest Martian ice maps generated by SWIM provide essential information for selecting suitable landing sites that match the strategic objectives of upcoming human missions.
Beyond the immediate benefits of mission planning, scientists believe maps like SWIM’s can also help unlock the mysteries of Mars’ unique landscape. The distribution of water ice in Martian mid-latitudes is not uniform, with some regions appearing to have more ice than others. This variation has intrigued scientists for years. Nathaniel Putzig, co-lead of SWIM at the Planetary Science Institute, expressed the potential of these new maps to spark new hypotheses and new insights into the underlying reasons for these disparities.