They might even be a useful source of water for future human exploration of the red planet.
It also hints that a human colony could one day be established and supported by the ice deposits.
US Geological Survey geologist Colin Dundas noticed a pale band of blue sticking out from the sea of rusty hues in high-resolution photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) a few years ago.
The cliffs are located in the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars, at a latitude of 55 to 58 degrees, which on Earth would be similar to Scotland or the tip of South America. "We'd seen ice exposed by the craters. but finding such clean exposures that weren't disrupted by an impact was quite surprising". In 2020, both the NASA Mars 2020 rover and the ExoMars rover will set out for the Red Planet in search of signs of ancient life. Furthermore, some of these massive ice deposits were found to be more than 330 feet (100 meters) thick.
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"It is likely that ice near the surface is even more extensive than detected in this study", Dundas said. Considering how dead and lifeless the surface of Mars has proven to be, it's nice to know that there are plenty of more interesting secrets waiting to be discovered just below ground.
With all this ice just barely concealed under a surface layer of rock and dust, it's looking like this could be an invaluable resource for future colonization efforts.
"Astronauts could essentially just go there with a bucket and a shovel and get all the water they need", said co-author Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.
The scientists say that the ice contains distinct layers, which could help to understand changes in the planet's climate over time. The same thing was later spotted at seven other sites on the surface of Mars.
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"If you had a mission at one of these sites, sampling the layers going down the scarp, you could get a detailed climate history of Mars", said MRO deputy project scientist Leslie Tamppari of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The new high-resolution images are the first to give scientists a clear sense of vertical characteristics of underground ice on Mars.
"Whilst water ice is known to be present in some locations on Mars, many questions remain about its layering, thickness, purity and extent", Dundas said. New research shows that a sizable portion of this water ice is surprisingly near the surface - in some cases just a few feet down. The slopes are probably being continuously exposed as the ice sublimates into the Martian atmosphere, likely to cycle up to the poles and end up frozen there.
Thick deposits cover broad regions of the Martian mid-latitudes with a smooth mantle; erosion in these regions creates scarps that expose the internal structure of the mantle.
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Over time, what first began as snow is "compacted into massive, fractured, and layered ice", the study says.