Huge glaciers detected under rocky debris on Mars

Thu Nov 20, 2008 5:30pm EST
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A radar instrument aboard a NASA spacecraft has detected large glaciers hidden under rocky debris that may be the vestiges of ice sheets that blanketed parts of Mars in a past ice age, scientists said on Thursday.

The glaciers, the biggest known deposits of water on Mars outside of its poles, could prove useful for future manned missions to the red planet as drinking water or rocket fuel, University of Texas planetary geologist John Holt said.

"If we were to, down the road, establish a base there, you'd want to park near a big source of water because you can do anything with it," Holt said.

The glaciers, perhaps 200 million years old, also may entomb genetic fragments of past microbial life on Mars as well as air bubbles that might reveal the composition of the atmosphere as it was long ago, according to geologist James Head of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

A ground-penetrating radar instrument aboard the U.S. space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter collected the data that confirmed the presence of the buried glaciers that extend for dozens of miles (km) from the edges of mountains or cliffs.

These closely resemble glaciers in Antarctica that similarly are covered by rocky debris, Head said.

Scientists previously determined that large deposits of ice exist at the Martian north and south polar regions, but hundreds of these buried glaciers are located at mid-latitudes on the planet.

Head said they can be about half a mile thick. One of them was three times larger than the city of Los Angeles.   Continued...