Why it matters: NASA is keen on returning astronauts to the Moon within the next five years, a project it sees as a stepping stone in eventually getting humans to Mars. Even with the logistics of long-distance space travel worked out, scientists will need to carefully consider where they want to land on Mars as this could be the difference between a mission’s success and failure.
For a manned mission to Mars to have any chance of long-term success, astronauts will need to be able to harvest some of the planet’s natural resources – namely, water in the form of ice. NASA, through data from its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter, has discovered that water ice is present in some regions as little as an inch below the surface.
“You wouldn't need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel,” said Sylvain Piqueux of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Such reserves could be invaluable when repurposed as drinking water and to make rocket fuel. Other aspects of life on Mars could also put this critical resource to good use.
Key concerns that scientists will need to further study before a potential mission include the concentration of ice at various locations, the depth at which the ice is located, the density of the atmosphere in a particular region and the hardness of the ground below (you don’t want the spacecraft to sink in the dirt).
Fortunately, there’s still plenty of time for analysis as it’ll likely be another couple of decades at the soonest before humans are ready to attempt the journey.