The United States Space Agency recently discussed a collaboration with three other agencies for the Mars Exploration Ice Mapper. This mission will aim to map the ice that the first astronauts could exploit on the red planet.
Catching up on China
In July 2020, China launched its long-awaited Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. The main objective of the mission will be to probe the water ice distribution in Martian basements. This will also allow the geological structure of the planet to be mapped. However, mapping the ice of Mars is also one of NASA’s objectives. In a statement published on February 3, 2021, the US agency announced the signing of an agreement with three other space agencies. These are the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).
The objective of their joint mission, the Mars Exploration Ice Mapper, will be to map exploitable ice deposits in the future by the crews of the first manned missions. As a first step, these four agencies will work together to assess the feasibility of such a mission. However, it is not excluded that other agencies integrate the project as it progresses.
A probe in low circular orbit to map ice
If the Mars Exploration Ice Mapper mission comes to fruition, it may well start in 2026. In concrete terms, this will involve identifying in advance the locations where the ice deposits are located. The information collected will concern the depth of these same deposits, their extent or even the abundance of ice by means of a low circular orbit probe around Mars (see image below). This probe should integrate a radar capable of analyzing the properties of dust and rocks. Indeed, their presence can play a role in the possibility of accessing the ice.
In short, it is a reconnaissance mission for a better knowledge of resources when the first humans set foot on Martian soil. Remember, however, that exploiting the ice of Mars seems to be essential for establishing a base then a colony. Indeed, transporting water from Earth would be far too expensive and would pose unsustainable logistical problems.
In addition to considering ice as a resource, the Mars Exploration Ice Mapper mission will have a real scientific interest. NASA evokes the possibility of coring in order to study the ice to answer a precise question: Did Mars once harbor a microbial form of life and does it now contain traces of it? Mapping the ices of Mars has another interest: to feed current knowledge in climatology and geology concerning this planet.