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NASA mulls Robotic mission to map ice on Mars

The Mars Ice Mapper mission will aim to detect the location, depth, spatial extent, and the abundance of near-surface ice deposits.

NASA and three international partners have signed a statement of intent to advance a possible robotic Mars ice mapping mission to search for ice deposits under the surface of Mars. It could help identify abundant, accessible ice for future candidate landing sites on the Red Planet.

Under the statement, NASA, the Italian Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency announced their intention to develop a mission plan and define their potential roles and responsibilities. If the concept moves forward, the mission could be ready to launch as early as 2026.

The international Mars Ice Mapper mission will detect the location, depth, spatial extent, and abundance of near-surface ice deposits, which will enable the science community to interpret a more detailed volatile history of Mars.

The radar-carrying orbiter would also help identify properties of the dust, loose rocky material and rock layers that might impact the ability to access ice.

The ice-mapping mission could help the agency identify potential science objectives for initial human missions to Mars, which are expected to be designed for about 30 days of exploration on the surface.

Mars Ice Mapper also could provide a map of water-ice resources for later human missions with longer surface expeditions, as well as help meet exploration engineering constraints, such as avoidance of rock and terrain hazards.

Speaking about the partnership, Jim Watzin, NASA’s senior advisor for agency architectures and mission alignment, said: “This innovative partnership model for Mars Ice Mapper combines our global experience and allows for cost-sharing across the board to make this mission more feasible for all interested parties. Human and robotic exploration go hand in hand, with the latter helping pave the way for smarter, safer human missions farther into the solar system. Together, we can help prepare humanity for our next giant leap – the first human mission to Mars.”

As the mission concept evolves, there may be opportunities for other space agency and commercial partners to join the mission.