Mars has shallow deposits of water-ice that astronauts can reach with a shovel: NASA

We may not have a spaceship to carry our astronauts to Mars yet, but NASA sure knows where to land it.

The spaceship that could ferry the first humans to explore Mars is still far from complete. But potential locations for the first human missions to land on Mars might come our way a lot sooner.

Mars geologists at NASA have mapped locations of rich water-ice deposits on the red planet in never-before-seen detail. In some of these regions, the water-ice deposits are mere inches from the surface — an exciting prospect for future resource-seeking missions to the Red Planet.

"You wouldn't need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel," Sylvain Piqueux, the study's lead author from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release. "We're continuing to collect data on buried ice on Mars, zeroing in on the best places for astronauts to land."

Map of underground water-ice on Mars. Image: NASA

Map of underground water-ice on Mars. Image: NASA

The geological map of Mars compiled in the study show an abundance of water-ice in the Martian poles and its (equatorial) mid-latitudes. One specific stretch in the Northern mid-latitudes is a "treasure map" of water-ice that is as close as an inch from the surface, based on satellite estimates.

This resource is a prime target for NASA's larger plan of "in situ resource utilization" on the moon and Mars — finding and using resources that are naturally found on a planet or moon to enable human colonies to survive on it. Considering NASA is among the key players vying to operate the first research base on Mars, the research going into findings hotspots like these will shape the pursuit of Mars research for decades to come. Satellites that are orbiting Mars (including ISRO's Mars Orbiter, Mangalyaan) — are helping scientists zero in on the "best places" to build the first Martian research station.

The study NASA pointed to was recently published in Geophysical Research Letters that will help it in mapping the water ice locations on the red planet. Data from two spacecrafts — NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter — went into mapping water-ice on Mars.

"These regions near the poles have been studied by NASA's Phoenix lander, which scraped up ice, and the MRO, which has taken many images from space of meteor impacts that have excavated this ice," NASA writes in a blog post.

The study also proposes Arcadia Planitia, a region on Mars shaped by an ancient lava flow, as a good spot to land a human Mars mission. It supposedly has an abundance of water-ice that can be scooped up by the astronauts when the times comes. That said, the groundwork is far from complete. Researchers at NASA are hoping to further the study and examine underground water-ice deposits on Mars to see the fluctuations in its levels across seasons.

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