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Analysis of glaciers found on Mars reveals the planet experienced 6 to 20 ice ages in the past 300 to 800 million years.


OSIRIS Mars true color
(Photo : ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO / Wikimedia Commons)
True color image of Mars taken by the OSIRIS instrument on the ESA Rosetta spacecraft during its February 2007 flyby of the planet. The image was generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green, and blue filters. 

Martian Glaciers

During Earth's ice age 20,000 years ago, the entire planet was covered in glaciers, which then retreated to the North and South poles. These massive masses of ice left rock evidence and carving of paths as they moved to the poles.

On the other hand, Martian glaciers never left. They remained frozen on the Red Planet's surface, with an estimated average temperature of negative 81 degrees Fahrenheit for over 300 million years. These glaciers have only been recently found because they have been covered in debris.

Joe Levy, the author of the study and a planetary geologist at Colgate University, says in a statement with CNN, Äll the rocks and sand carried on that ice have remained on the surface. It's like putting the ice in a cooler under all those sediments."

The study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences states that glacial landforms are widespread on the Red Planet.

The Martian glaciers have long been a mystery to geologists and researchers who tried to determine whether an extended Martian ice age could have caused the glacial formations or were they formed over the course of multiple ice ages spanning millions of years.

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Rocks on Martian Glaciers

Studying the sediment that covered the glaciers could provide scientists with the answers.

Upon examining the rock formations, Levy determined that since rocks erode over time, the discovery of rocks shifting from larger to smaller clumps downhill suggests a single ice age.

Because science has not allowed studying Mars' surface first hand, students at Colgate University, New York, used 45 images of glaciers from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The high-resolution images allowed scientists to count and determine the size of the rocks. In total, researchers measured 60,000 rocks. Artificial intelligence could have cut down the work spent. However, it would not be able to differentiate rocks from glacial surfaces.

Thanks to the European Space Agency's Mars Expression missions, researchers are certain that perennial ice can be found on the Red Planet. 

Rather than an organized arrangement of rocks with varying sizes, researchers observed unexpected randomness. Levy explains, "in fact, the boulders were telling us a different story. It wasn't their size that mattered; it was how they were clustered.

The study found that rocks were traveling inside the Martian glaciers rather than on the surface, which is why the rocks didn't erode. They were,  however, visible in rings of debris on the glacial surface. 

These rings mark distinct flows of ice that formed during various ice ages.

Ice ages are due to the tilt of a planet's axis shifts. These distinct ice ages formed separately, reflecting times when the Red Planet essentially wobbled on its axis. 

The study sheds light on the Martian climate and how it has changed throughout its history.

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