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Water Ice at Mid-Latitudes on Mars  

Frances E. G. Butcher

Mars’s mid-latitudes, corresponding approximately to the 30°–60° latitude bands in both hemispheres, host abundant water ice in the subsurface. Ice is unstable with respect to sublimation at Mars’s surface beyond the polar regions, but can be preserved in the subsurface at mid-to-high latitudes beneath a centimeters-to-meters-thick covering of lithic material. In Mars’s mid-latitudes, water ice is present as pore ice between grains of the martian soil (termed “regolith”) and as deposits of excess ice exceeding the pore volume of the regolith. Excess ice is present as lenses within the regolith, as extensive layers tens to hundreds of meters thick, and as debris-covered glaciers with evidence of past flow. Subsurface water ice on Mars has been inferred indirectly using numerous techniques including numerical modeling, observations of surface geomorphology, and thermal, spectral, and ground-penetrating radar analyses. Ice exposures have also been imaged directly by orbital and landed missions to Mars. Shallow pore ice can be explained by the diffusion and freezing of atmospheric water vapor into the regolith. The majority of known excess ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitudes are, however, better explained by deposition from the atmosphere (e.g., via snowfall) under climatic conditions different from the present day. They are thought to have been emplaced within the last few million to 1 billion years, during large-scale mobilization of Mars’s water inventory between the poles, equator, and mid-latitude regions under cyclical climate changes. Thus, water ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitudes probably host a rich record of geologically recent climate changes on Mars. Mid-latitude ice deposits are leading candidate targets for in situ resource utilization of water ice by future human missions to Mars, which may be able to sample the deposits to access such climate records. In situ water resources will be required for rocket fuel production, surface operations, and life support systems. Thus, it is essential that the nature and distribution of mid-latitude ice deposits on Mars are characterized in detail.


The Pluto−Charon System  

Will Grundy

Pluto orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 39.5 AU (astronomical units; 1 AU is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun), with an orbital period of 248 Earth years. Its orbit is just eccentric enough to cross that of Neptune. They never collide thanks to a 2:3 mean-motion resonance: Pluto completes two orbits of the Sun for every three by Neptune. The Pluto system consists of Pluto and its large satellite Charon, plus four small satellites: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are spherical bodies, with diameters of 2,377 and 1,212 km, respectively. They are tidally locked to one another such that each spins about its axis with the same 6.39-day period as their mutual orbit about their common barycenter. Pluto’s surface is dominated by frozen volatiles nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Their vapor pressure supports an atmosphere with multiple layers of photochemical hazes. Pluto’s equator is marked by a belt of dark red maculae, where the photochemical haze has accumulated over time. Some regions are ancient and cratered, while others are geologically active via processes including sublimation and condensation, glaciation, and eruption of material from the subsurface. The surfaces of the satellites are dominated by water ice. Charon has dark red polar stains produced from chemistry fed by Pluto’s escaping atmosphere. The existence of a planet beyond Neptune had been postulated by Percival Lowell and William Pickering in the early 20th century to account for supposed clustering in comet aphelia and perturbations of the orbit of Uranus. Both lines of evidence turned out to be spurious, but they motivated a series of searches that culminated in Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 at the observatory Lowell had founded in Arizona. Over subsequent decades, basic facts about Pluto were hard-won through application of technological advances in astronomical instrumentation. During the progression from photographic plates through photoelectric photometers to digital array detectors, space-based telescopes, and ultimately, direct exploration by robotic spacecraft, each revealed more about Pluto. A key breakthrough came in 1978 with the discovery of Charon by Christy and Harrington. Charon’s orbit revealed the mass of the system. Observations of stellar occultations constrained the sizes of Pluto and Charon and enabled the detection of Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988. Spectroscopic instruments revealed Pluto’s volatile ices. In a series of mutual events from 1985 through 1990, Pluto and Charon alternated in passing in front of the other as seen from Earth. Observations of these events provided additional constraints on their sizes and albedo patterns and revealed their distinct compositions. The Hubble Space Telescope’s vantage above Earth’s atmosphere enabled further mapping of Pluto’s albedo patterns and the discovery of the small satellites. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew through the system in 2015. Its instruments mapped the diversity and compositions of geological features on Pluto and Charon and provided detailed information on Pluto’s atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind.