There’s solid evidence for the existence of water on Mars, at least in frozen form at the planet’s poles. And a more recent study confirms the existence of liquid water at the south pole. But visitors to Mars will need to know the exact location of usable water deposits at other Martian locations. A ground-penetrating radar called ScanMars may be up to the task.
Italian scientists at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) Planetologia Spaziali and the University of Perugia are developing the device. In February 2018 they tested ScanMars at the Dhofar region in Oman. The test was part of the AMADEE-18 Mission led by the Austrian Space Forum. Alessandro Frigeri of INAF presented the results of that test at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in Berlin. The abstract of that presentation is here.
ScanMars looks a lot like a metal detector. A sledge contains the suite of instruments that contacts the surface of the ground. The astronauts move the sledge around with a long handle. ScanMars detects underground features by sending and receiving radio-wave impulses into the ground.
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Different underground geological features respond differently to the radio-waves, and ScanMars builds an image of the sub-surface as it collects the reflected signals. During the AMADEE-18 mission to Dhofar, the analogue astronauts tested the instrument in four areas with different geologic characteristics. ScanMars sensed the ground to a depth of 5 meters, and collected 70,000 radar echoes covering 1.4 kilometers.
“… the astronauts’ training has become a key part of the experiment.” – Dr. Alessandro Frigeri, INAF.
“The innovative element of ScanMars with respect to common radar fieldwork is that the data was acquired by the analogue astronauts and not the scientists,” said Dr. Frigeri. “This means that the astronauts’ training has become a key part of the experiment.” The astronauts learned how to use ScanMars at the Austrian Space Forum’s facilities in Innsbruck. This is a noteworthy aspect of the ScanMars tool, because operating this type of equipment is well outside of an astronaut’s usual training.
Most importantly, ScanMars successfully detected what’s known as a wadi, or dry, seasonal riverbed during the testing in Oman. ScanMars finds water by recognizing sub-surface geological structures associated with water, rather than the H2O itself. So in that sense, the test during AMADEE-18 was a success.
“In view of the recent discovery of liquid water beneath the surface of Mars, it’s very timely to look ahead to the development of techniques that future explorers could use to analyse the Martian subsurface.” – Dr. Alessandro Frigeri, INAF.
“The data quality is very good and, even if we are not yet able to distinguish unambiguously the presence of water, we can find alluvial structures that could guide future astronauts to dig where they are most likely to find water,” said Dr. Frigeri. “In view of the recent discovery of liquid water beneath the surface of Mars, it’s very timely to look ahead to the development of techniques that future explorers could use to analyse the Martian subsurface.”
The whole operation was an example of the high-level collaboration required for missions to Mars. The ScanMars experiment required finely-tuned teamwork between a scientific team, an operations team and a field crew. “Our mission embraced different aspects of scientific exploration and implemented new strategies and workflows for the members,” said Dr. Frigeri. “Getting these collaborations right will be extremely precious for future human planetary missions.”
Dr. Gernot Grömer, Administrative Director of the Austrian Space Forum, also praised the teamwork behind the mission. “The georadar experiment, as part of a carefully designed workflow called the exploration cascade, was a remarkable demonstration of the potential of this method. The exploration cascade determines the sequence of when and which instrument to deploy during a human Mars mission. For future analogue missions, and for the actual first human missions to Mars, this was an important demonstration in a high-fidelity proving-ground environment,” said Dr. Gernot Grömer.
“… we consider ScanMars a success due to the volume of new experience created among the scientific team, the operations’ team and the field crew.” Dr. Alessandro Frigeri, to the European Planetary Science Congress.
Dr. Frigeri also praised the refined teamwork necessary for this type of mission when he presented the results to the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC). “The ScanMars experiment can be considered successful not just because of the data acquired but more importantly we consider ScanMars a success due to the volume of new experience created among the scientific team, the operations’ team and the field crew.”