[meteorite-list] NASA Radar Finds Ice Age Record in Mars' Polar Cap

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Fri, 27 May 2016 17:28:24 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <201605280028.u4S0SOYK014184_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


NASA Radar Finds Ice Age Record in Mars' Polar Cap
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
May 26, 2016

Scientists using radar data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)
have found a record of the most recent Martian ice age recorded in the
planet's north polar ice cap.

The new results agree with previous models that indicate a glacial period
ended about 400,000 years ago, as well as predictions about how much ice
would have been accumulated at the poles since then.

The results, published in the May 27 issue of the journal Science, help
refine models of the Red Planet's past and future climate by allowing
scientists to determine how ice moves between the poles and mid-latitudes,
and in what volumes.

Mars has bright polar caps of ice that are easily visible from telescopes
on Earth. A seasonal cover of carbon-dioxide ice and snow is observed
to advance and retreat over the poles during the Martian year. During
summertime in the planet's north, the remaining northern polar cap is
all water ice; the southern cap is water ice as well, but remains covered
by a relatively thin layer of carbon dioxide ice even in southern summertime.

But Mars also undergoes variations in its tilt and the shape of its orbit
over hundreds of thousands of years. These changes cause substantial shifts
in the planet's climate, including ice ages. Earth has similar, but less
variable, phases called Milankovitch cycles.

Scientists use data from MRO's Shallow Subsurface Radar (SHARAD) to produce
images called radargrams that are like vertical slices though the layers
of ice and dust that comprise the Martian polar ice deposits. For the
new study, researchers analyzed hundreds of such images to look for variations
in the layer properties.

The researchers identified a boundary in the ice that extends across the
entire north polar cap. Above the boundary, the layers accumulated very
quickly and uniformly, compared with the layers below them.

"The layers in the upper few hundred meters display features that indicate
a period of erosion, followed by a period of rapid accumulation that is
still occurring today," said planetary scientist Isaac Smith, the study's
lead author. Smith led the work while at Southwest Research Institute
in Boulder, Colorado, but is now at the Planetary Science Institute in
Tucson, Arizona.

On Earth, ice ages take hold when the polar regions and high latitudes
become cooler than average for thousands of years, causing glaciers to
grow toward the mid-latitudes. In contrast, the Martian variety occurs
when -- as a result of the planet's increased tilt -- its poles become
warmer than lower latitudes. During these periods, the polar caps retreat
and water vapor migrates toward the equator, forming ground ice and glaciers
at mid-latitudes. As the warm polar period ends, polar ice begins accumulating
again, while ice is lost from mid-latitudes. This retreat and regrowth
of polar ice is exactly what Smith and colleagues see in the record revealed
by the SHARAD radar images.

An increase in polar ice following a mid-latitude ice age is also expected
from climate models that show how ice moves around based on Mars' orbital
properties, especially its tilt. These models predict the last Martian
ice age ended about 400,000 years ago, as the poles began to cool relative
to the equator. Models suggest that since then, the polar deposits would
have thickened by about 980 feet (300 meters).

The upper unit identified by Smith and colleagues reaches a maximum thickness
of 1,050 feet (320 meters) across the polar cap, which is equivalent to
a 2-foot-thick (60-centimeter-thick) global layer of ice. That is essentially
the same as model predictions made by other researchers in 2003 and 2007.

"This suggests that we have indeed identified the record of the most recent
Martian glacial period and the regrowth of the polar ice since then. Using
these measurements, we can improve our understanding of how much water
is moving between the poles and other latitudes, helping to improve our
understanding of the Martian climate," Smith said.

After 10 years in orbit, Mars Reconnaissance and its six science instruments
are still in excellent shape. "The longevity of the mission has enabled
more thorough and improved radar coverage of the Martian poles," said
Richard Zurek, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Our long life in orbit and powerful
3-D analysis tools are allowing scientists to unravel Mars' past climate

The Italian Space Agency provided the SHARAD instrument on Mars Reconnaissance
Orbiter and Sapienza University of Rome leads its operations. JPL, a division
of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission
for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin
Space Systems of Denver built the orbiter and supports its operations.

News Media Contact

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
guy.w.webster at jpl.nasa.gov

Written by Preston Dyches
NASA-JPL News Office

Received on Fri 27 May 2016 08:28:24 PM PDT

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