A photo snapped by the ESA Mars Express Spacecraft depicts a 51 mile wide crater filled with water ice near the north pole of Mars. Strategies that are currently being considered for melting ice water contained inside of similar craters on the moon could be refurbished for the red planet as well, allowing future martian colonists a better chance at survival.
On Thursday the European Space Agency shot a photo of Korolev Crater, a dish-shaped basin that spots a sprawling plain near the north pole of Mars. According to scientists Korolev contains 530 cubic miles of water ice, five times the volume of Lake Erie. The basin remains frozen all year round due to it’s lower elevation and proximity to the north pole. This does not exclude the reservoir from a list of potential liquid water candidates for martian colonization however, as a plan to melt-down similar icey craters on the moon was hatched earlier this year at the Space Resources Roundtable.
The concept is called thermal mining, and employs a technique originally invented for concentrated solar power, where an arrangement of mirrors are positioned in such a way as to concentrate light and create more energy. In this case however, the technique more closely approximates the use of a magnifying glass to heat something up. By perching mirrors around the edge of the crater and focusing incoming light rays down in to the reservoir you can melt the ice and extract the liquid water for use. A surprisingly simply strategy with nonetheless valuable results.
Beyond supplying us with something to drink, clean, and grow plants, water can be ionized to create fuel, such as in the case of the Momentus water plasma engine or split in to hydrogen and oxygen via solar powered electrolysis for a more traditional, high impulse, combustible alternative. Hydrogen fuel is a growing topic of interest among those searching for a more eco-friendly alternative to carbon based fuels down here on Earth, but in space it could be created from water ice, which is only proving to be more and more abundant with time.
Maybe Elon Musk will consider using thermal mining techniques for the extraction of water from icey reservoirs in the future. If ice water is prolific enough in these isolated pockets, doing so will out-compete drilling through the ground as a viable means of procuring access to the vital natural resource – at least while the population remains limited.