The origin of perennial water-ice at the South Pole of Mars

Jul 13, 2007
The origin of perennial water-ice at the South Pole of Mars
The OMEGA instrument on board ESA’s Mars Express has characterised the types of ice deposits present in the South polar cap of Mars as the arrows, superimposed on an image taken by the HRSC instrument, indicate. Credits: ESA - DLR - FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Thanks to data from ESA's Mars Express mission, combined with models of the Martian climate, scientists can now suggest how the orbit of Mars around the Sun affects the deposition of water ice at the Martian South Pole.

Early during the mission, the OMEGA instrument (Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer) on board Mars Express had already found previously undetected perennial deposits of water-ice. They are sitting on top of million-year old layered terrains and provide strong evidence for a recent glacial activity.

However, only now a realistic explanation for the age of the deposits and the mechanism of their formation could finally be suggested. This was achieved thanks to the OMEGA mapping and characterisation of these ice deposits, combined with the computer-generated Martian Global Climate Models (GCMs).

The mapping and spectral analysis by OMEGA has shown that the perennial deposits on the Martian South Pole are of essentially three types: water-ice mixed with carbon dioxide (CO2) ice, tens-of-kilometres-wide patches of water-ice, and deposits covered by a thin layer of CO2 ice.

The discovery of the ice deposits of the first type confirms the long-standing hypothesis that CO2 acts as a cold-trap for water-ice. But how were the other two types of deposits, not ‘trapped’ by CO2, accumulated and preserved over time"

Franck Montmessin, from the Service d'Aéronomie du CNRS/IPSL (France) and lead author of the findings, explains how the deposits of water ice at the Martian's poles 'behave'. "We believe that the deposits of water-ice are juggled between Mars’ North and South Poles over a cycle that spans 51 000 years, corresponding to the time span in which the planet's precession is inverted." Precession is the phenomenon by which the rotation axis of a planet wobbles.

Montmessin and colleagues came to the conclusion by turning back time in their Mars climate computer model. This was done by changing the precession together with other orbital information.

The scientists set the clock 21 000 years back, when the closest vicinity of the planet to the Sun corresponded to the northern summer – a situation opposite to that of today.

The model has shown that water at the North Pole was in an unstable condition and was easily transported to the South Pole in the form of water vapour, to then re-condense and freeze on the surface. Up to 1 millimetre of water ice was deposited at the South Pole every year. After Mars has spent more than 10 000 years in that climatic configuration, this accumulation led to a layer up to 6-metre thick.

About 10 000 years ago the precession cycle was inverted, and started to return to its current configuration. Water-ice at the South Pole became unstable, and was forced to progressively return back to the North.

About 1000 years ago, by a not-yet-well explained trigger mechanism, the erosion of the water-ice deposits at the South pole was blocked as soon as layers of CO2 ice were deposited on the water-ice and trapped it, as OMEGA has observed them.

Source: European Space Agency

Explore further: SpaceX making Easter delivery of station supplies (Update 2)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

4 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.