Is this the perfect spot for people on Mars?

This image, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA's Mars Express, shows a perspective view of a glacial feature located in Deuteronilus Mensae. (Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, G. Neukum)

Scientists have started thinking about the best places on Mars for human exploration and some say a spot called Deuteronilus Mensae may be just right.

The location could hold the key to a number of important scientific questions about the evolution of the Red Planet—and also has the resources astronauts would need to live and work safely, says Jim Head, a geologist at Brown University. “Science and survivability—that’s the coin of the realm here.”

“Deuteronilus really represents the alpha and the omega.”

Head has first-hand experience in planning missions to explore another world. Shortly after receiving his PhD from Brown, he took a job working on the Apollo program, helping to select landing sites on the Moon and train astronauts in lunar geology. The lessons of Apollo will serve NASA well in planning human exploration of Mars, he says.

“We learned a lot about selecting sites of high scientific interest, planning traverses across those landing sites, and using scientific approaches to solving complex problems,” Head says. “We can do likewise for Mars.”

glacial ice on Mars
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has detected widespread deposits of glacial ice in the mid-latitudes of Mars. This map of a region known as Deuteronilus Mensae, in the northern hemisphere, shows locations of the detected ice deposits in blue. (Credit: NASA)

Scientists have been studying Deuteronilus for years. Several years ago, they noticed landforms in the region that look a lot like formations on Earth that are associated with buried glacial ice.

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More recently, the SHARAD instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed that deposits of buried ice were indeed present. That ice could provide an all-important water resource for human explorers.

“That’s critical,” Head says. “It would be really great not to have to take all your water with you. You would need to clear off the debris that covers it, but that debris could be used to build a shelter against the potentially intense radiation on the surface of Mars.”

Head has also done extensive field research in Antarctica, where explorers use glacial deposits in much the same way.

“When we work in Antarctica, we typically don’t take water with us when we’re out in the field,” he says. “We use water from the glacier ice as we study it. We live off the land, so to speak.”

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There’s plenty of crucial science to be done at Deuteronilus as well. The site is close to samples of crust that date back to the earliest epoch on Mars, more than four billion years ago. Collecting and analyzing those samples could help in piecing together what the surface was like early in the planet’s history. In addition to providing water, the buried glaciers are a scientific resource. The deposits range in age from several hundred million years old to only a few million. These could provide scientists with a record of relatively recent climate shifts and atmospheric conditions on Mars.

“Deuteronilus really represents the alpha and the omega,” Head says. “It offers a chance to explore the ancient crust as well as more recent climate history.”

Site selection for humans on Mars is in its very preliminary stages, but Head says now is the time to start bringing as many people as possible into the process.

“When I answered the job ad for the Apollo program it was really exciting,” he says. “We brought lots of people together to see how we could think our way to the Moon and back. Going to Mars is going to be a tremendous challenge, but it’s going to be exciting.”

Source: Brown University