Ice mined on Mars could provide water for humans exploring space

Ice mined on Mars could provide water for humans exploring space
There is water on Mars - but it’s buried, and frozen. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

As humans spread out across the Earth, the locations of new colonies were driven by the accessibility of resources: not only food and water, but also arable land, forests and minerals.

Access to such resources remains important as the economy moves into . Here, water has emerged as the pre-eminent resource to exploit first.

The question then becomes, from where will we extract the water? Along with the moon and near Earth asteroids as potential sources, Mars is an important candidate.

Eyes on Mars

Mars is the focus for human settlement in space, largely due to Elon Musk's Space X, Mars One and NASA's activities in this regard.

The NASA human landing site selection committee proposed 47 potential sites for a human occupied base on Mars. They considered not only scientific regions of interest but also "resource regions of interest" – where there is accessible water.

A number of conditions need to be met for an exploration zone to be considered useful for prospecting for water. Water needs to be accessible, located near the surface, and of sufficient size and concentration to meet the user needs.

For operational reasons the Mars water site also needs to be located with a latitude less than 50°. This ruled out the previously identified large surface ice deposits in the high latitude polar regions of Mars.

Ice mined on Mars could provide water for humans exploring space
A flattened map of the surface of Mars shows the location (red box) of the buried ice deposits in the Deuteronilus-Protonilus Mensae region. Credit: MOLA – NASA/JPL, Author provided
Buried ice

The Protonilus - Deuteronilus Mensae region on Mars is located in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars (~8°E and 60°E 38N and 50°N).

This region is host to numerous land forms which appear to contain large buried ice deposits, hundreds of meters thick and several kilometres wide.

If the ice is preserved as we believe, these features would represent a significant resource easily capable of satisfying the requirements for a human base. It is for this reason that three exploration zones have been proposed in the region.

At the low pressures in the Martian atmosphere, and the temperatures in equatorial regions, ice can "sublime" directly from the solid to gas state (evaporation being the transition from water to gas). The features we are observing protect ice under a layer of debris.

Because of this, it is not possible to evaluate directly the quantity of ice present. Instead we must rely on data collected by orbital spacecraft to work out the geological properties and potential water resources available.

If we were able to make measurements on the planet itself (as we can usually do on Earth), things would be much clearer. However, there have been no landed rover missions to this of Mars, so we are reliant on remotely sensed data.

There is still a lot to be learned from data collected by satellites orbiting Mars. These give us high resolution imagery of the surface, along with insight into the geological properties of these features.

Ice mined on Mars could provide water for humans exploring space
Image of a buried ice deposit in the Protonilus Mensae region on Mars. These features are considered analogous to debris-covered glaciers on Earth. Credit: CTX-NASA/JPL, Author provided

We can make informed assessments about how much water there is, and where it is distributed, as well as about what lies over it (which will have to either be drilled through or excavated to reach the water). These interpretations can be used to guide future exploration activities, and assist equipment design and mine planning operations.

Rover missions could provide more certainty but planning such a will not occur until after site selection, and insight into the feasibility of mining on Mars to support human missions to the Red Planet.

Other mining in space

It's not only Mars which is being investigated as a potential source of water in space. The moon with its supply of polar water ice is being considered as a potential resource to supply proposed lunar bases or propellant for Mars missions. The Lunar Resource Prospector mission set to launch in the early 2020s will help us better understand the resource potential of the moon.

Asteroid mining companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are looking to exploit stored in near Earth asteroids and are working towards exploratory missions in the near future.

There are a large number of technical issues that must be navigated before such an ambitious mining enterprise is considered low-risk enough to be feasible. These are challenging, but not insurmountable. A significant international effort is afoot to solve the problems with several companies, the major space agencies and the government of Luxembourg committed to the task.

Representatives from these stakeholder groups will be in Australia to discuss these issues at the Off-Earth Mining Forum to be held in Sydney, September 20-21, 2017.


Explore further

Geologists help NASA plan for human exploration of Mars

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Sep 15, 2017
So, why, exactly, would we want to go into a gravity well to obtain water, then lift it out of that gravity well for use in space, when rather obviously, a *lot* of water is already away from any gravity wells whatsoever in the form of asteroids, some of them quite near Earth?

Robotic equipment working in space will suffer much less wear and tear than will be experienced on the Martian surface. Harvesting sunlight for energy will also be easier and less intermittent, since there's no planet casting a shadow at night.

What are these guys thinking?

Sep 16, 2017
Urgelt, For accessible near earth asteroids water may be present in the form of hydrated clays. Carbonaceous chondrites are water rich in the same way the cement in my porch is water rich.

Water may be present in the lunar cold traps in the form of ice. Much less difficult to extract if present in rich deposits.

The launch windows to accessible NEAs are years or even decades apart. Trip times are the better part of a year. Light lag latency is tens of minutes.

Launch windows to the moon are always open. Trip time 3 or 4 days. Light lag latency around 3 seconds.

Sep 16, 2017
Dave, I think what we will find among near-Earth asteroids is variety. Lots and lots of variety. But if they're all clays, as you speculate, it's not so far to go out to the asteroid belt and mine asteroids there. We *know* that there is water ice on some of those bodies.

The engineering required to succeed at water-ice mining on Mars and retrieve the harvested water to space for missions is just incredibly complex.

Not impossible, of course. But mining in low gravity will be much, much easier to work through.

Sep 16, 2017
I'll have a tall glass of water, on (in) the rocks....

Sep 16, 2017
"...light/em waves travel in vacuum space at an infinite speed..."

Infinite, eh? So the universe would be... how old? A few thousand years, right?

Just another sick bible thumping literalist making shit up to rationalize an irrational belief system.

Go away. This is not the forum for you.

Sep 16, 2017
From what I have heard, not sure true or not, but we are not able to send people to Mars due the fact we don't have technology to protect them from long term exposure to deadly radiation? Also, I have heard, that any water present there or on the moon is very likely to be heavy water, and would not be useable for human intake?

Sep 16, 2017
Really what we need to do is send a mission to the Saturn moon Enceladus! This might be the only place nearby that would work for humans!

Sep 16, 2017
"From what I have heard, not sure true or not, but we are not able to send people to Mars due the fact we don't have technology to protect them from long term exposure to deadly radiation? Also, I have heard, that any water present there or on the moon is very likely to be heavy water, and would not be useable for human intake?"

Your source, whatever it is, is not NASA.

Protecting astronauts from radiation during a Mars mission is certainly not a trivial challenge, but once beyond the Earth's Van Allen belts, and absent solar flares aimed directly at the spacecraft, background radiation is pretty low-level. Not great for long-term health, but not a threat to the mission. There will probably be a shielded area in the spacecraft to retreat to during high-radiation solar events.

The incidence of heavy water on Mars could be higher than on Earth, but I haven't read any peer-reviewed science proposing that it's *all* heavy water. Highly doubtful.

Sep 16, 2017
On Earth, there are roughly 156 deuterium atoms per million hydrogen atoms in natural water, meaning that 0.0156% of the hydrogen atoms are of the heavy type. That's probably not much different from isotopic concentrations in water 4.5 billion years ago, when the planets formed. That long ago, Martian water was probably similar.

The mechanism for Mars' water loss is most likely this: sunlight disassociates water molecules; hydrogen escapes to space; oxygen oxygenates rocks. (Mars is very red; that's where the oxygen mostly went, into rust.) Isotopes of hydrogen don't alter this mechanism: deuterium is still awfully light and will rise to the top of the atmosphere if it doesn't recombine with something else first, just like regular hydrogen. It'll be lost at almost the same rate as regular hydrogen.

Mars' lower gravity and thinner atmosphere might accelerate water loss, but it should not do much to change isotopic ratios in the water that remains.

Sep 16, 2017
.

all space missions are fake, cuz they faked the time delay for space radio transmission.

light/em waves travel in vacuum space at an infinite speed, only within mediums at a limited speed.

so any communication takes more than 1/100 second is faked.

all scientists think light speed is c in the vacuum, they all wrong.


So my satellite internet connection is fake. The lag time is 74ms 7 times more than 1/100 of a second. So is satellite TV

Sep 17, 2017
mtnphot, you can't reason with science deniers by using facts. Just block him and move on.

Sep 17, 2017
What are these guys thinking?
I guess they're thinking that they're experts and, well, you're not.

Robotics and mass drivers will be used wherever resources can be found. The variables are availability and ease of use. If it makes more economic and streategic sense to use Martian water then that's what will be used.

But I assume resources will eventually be exploited throughout the system, and it certainly makes sense that experts are beginning to examine ways of exploiting all of them.

Sep 17, 2017
Thanks Urgelt! Here is what I read -The new study, in rodents, shows that astronauts could suffer from a phenomenon called "space brain" during the long trip to Mars, as cosmic radiation bombards their bodies and damages their brain! livescience

Now our new study suggests that most of the water inside the moon must have been delivered by asteroids some 4.5 to 4.3 billion years ago. Most comets, for example, have heavy water! theconversation

Sep 17, 2017
cart2424, consider the difference between these statements.

Statement 1: Most comets have heavy water.

Statement 2: Comets are mostly heavy water.

Not the same. A study which says the former is not endorsing the latter view. Regard what studies are saying about isotopic ratios.

Re: 'space brain,' be cautious about drawing conclusions. Cosmic rays rarely reach the surface of the Earth; we don't know very much about how they interact with biology. What we have is indirect data, reasoning from Earth-based evidence, plus very short Apollo exposures of humans. Various studies have projected various conclusions, differing mainly in how fast symptoms will develop. A Mars mission will involve no more than 18 months in space and six months on the surface; will that put humans at risk of developing symptoms from cosmic rays? And what's the best way to shield them while in space beyond Earth Orbit?

More studies are on the way, you can be sure.

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