The researchers detailed their findings in a paper, which was published May 1 in the journal Icarus.
"What I think makes Arcadia Planitia a good destination for future human space flight and resource utilization is its flat topography for safe landing along with an abundance of near-surface ice at relatively low latitudes for human use," said Shannon Hibbard, a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and the lead author of the study.
Arcadia Planitia is located in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere of Mars. Numerous data taken using Mars orbiters suggest that the ground in the region is rich in hydrogen. Since water is made of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, there could be water right beneath the surface.
But water aside, Arcadia Planitia nabbed the researchers' attention due to the sinuous patterns found there. These patterns look similar to glaciers flowing through valleys on Earth, suggesting that they were made by ice flow. But the terrain is not steep enough to explain why and how the ice could have moved.
"We have not seen anything quite like this on Mars, so we look to Earth where streams of ice within ice sheets can exist with no obvious control from surface topography," Hibbard said.
The researchers found that the features are indeed glacial in origin and are likely buried debris-covered glaciers that formed relatively recently. They look similar to other glacier-like features associated with slow-flowing material seen on Mars, but most closely resemble ice streams in Antarctica, which are fast-moving flows of ice within ice sheets.
Ice streams are perfect examples of ice flowing in fairly flat terrain. They are not well-understood yet but most ice streams on Earth require at least a thin layer of liquid water at their base to lubricate and set off their flow.
"It is possible that, at some point, subglacial water was present at this location on Mars, but it is unclear how much and for how long," Hibbard said.
If subglacial water were indeed present on the planet before, it would have major implications for future Mars missions. For one, astronauts could readily access and utilize water in its solid form for drinking water, fuel and irrigation. (Related: NASA scientists discuss the feasibility of humans colonizing Mars.)
"Engineers are always showing us that they can do the impossible," Hibbard said. "They are currently coming up with multiple ways to access buried water ice for multi-use purposes. Wherever NASA and SpaceX decide to land, we know they will be able to find a way to access the ice."
Both NASA and Elon Musk's aerospace company SpaceX expressed a desire to launch a manned mission to the Red Planet. NASA is currently preparing for that mission through its Mars 2020 mission and lunar Artemis Program. Meanwhile, SpaceX is working on a spacecraft called Starship that is designed to carry passengers to Mars. Musk said he wants to build a permanent Mars colony and make humanity a multi-planetary species.
The researchers concluded that Arcadia Planitia could be an excellent a landing site for future Mars missions due to the presence of the glacier-like, sinuous features lying right beneath the surface. They also recommended studying the region up-close since it has never been examined except from orbit.
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