Researchers with the Department of
Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory have determined that Mars has
enough water to sustain human exploratory missions.

A neutron spectrometer, designed and built at Los Alamos and flown
aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey, has been mapping the Red planet for the
past three months for hydrogen, an indicator of water-ice.

The results appear in the May 31 issue of Science magazine.

“The surface soils of Mars are rich in hydrogen,” said Los Alamos’
principal investigator Bill Feldman. “Soil extending 60 degrees from
the Martian poles contain from 35 percent to 100 percent of water-ice
buried beneath a shallow overburden of hydrogen-poor soil. Although
scientists have known that water ice is stable close to the surface
in these regions, our new measurements are the first to give the
amount of near-surface water on Mars.

“The amount of water present on Mars is sufficiently large that it
can support future human exploration activities,” Feldman continued.
“We have anticipated these results for 17 years and are excited that
all of our wishes and hard work have been fulfilled.”

The neutron spectrometer maps show that the large region that extends
from the poles to within about 50 degrees of the equator contains
Mars’ most abundant reservoirs of hydrogen, or water ice. The large
expanses at low to middle latitudes of Mars also contain significant
amounts of hydrogen, which are most likely deposits of chemically
and/or physically bound water and/or hydroxyl radicals – one hydrogen
atom bound to one oxygen atom.

The neutron spectrometer data are supported by simultaneous
measurements made using Mars Odyssey’s gamma-ray spectrometer,
operated by the University of Arizona.

Los Alamos’ neutron spectrometer began mapping the Martian surface
while it was summer in the south and winter in the north. It revealed
the extent to which the northern and southern polar caps are covered
in a thick layer of carbon dioxide, or dry ice. During winter, the
carbon dioxide layers extend from the poles to within about 60
degrees of the equator because the dry ice frost settles out of the
atmosphere when temperatures fall about 186 degrees below zero
Fahrenheit. During the warmer summer the carbon dioxide layer
evaporates completely in the north but remains as a thick cover of
the residual polar cap in the south.

The first successful attempt to measure the global distribution of
neutrons about a planetary body was made using a similar neutron
spectrometer aboard Lunar Prospector. Comparisons between the lunar
and Martian neutron spectrometer data reveal that Mars’ soil is
richer in hydrogen than is the moon’s soil by more than several
factors of 10 to several factors of 1,000.

Los Alamos neutron spectrometer will continue to measure neutrons
that leak outward from the upper meter of the Martian soil for
several more years. Mars Odyssey’s orbit is such that the entire
planet’s surface is sampled in four-degree longitudinal increments

Scientists will use these data not only to determine the amount of
water on Mars, but to map the basaltic lava cover, measure the
seasonal variation of dry-ice frost that covers both poles during
their winter months and help interpret data from the gamma-ray
spectrometer to determine the quantity and composition of the most
abundant elements on the planet.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of
California for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of
the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA’s
Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA
in its mission.

Los Alamos enhances global security by ensuring safety and confidence
in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce
threats from weapons of mass destruction and improving the
environmental and nuclear materials legacy of the cold war. Los
Alamos’ capabilities assist the nation in addressing energy,
environment, infrastructure and biological security problems.

EDITORS’ NOTE: Photographs for news use are available at: online.