The state and future of Mars polar science and exploration

Icarus. 2000 Apr;144(2):210-42. doi: 10.1006/icar.1999.6290.


As the planet's principal cold traps, the martian polar regions have accumulated extensive mantles of ice and dust that cover individual areas of approximately 10(6) km2 and total as much as 3-4 km thick. From the scarcity of superposed craters on their surface, these layered deposits are thought to be comparatively young--preserving a record of the seasonal and climatic cycling of atmospheric CO2, H2O, and dust over the past approximately 10(5)-10(8) years. For this reason, the martian polar deposits may serve as a Rosetta Stone for understanding the geologic and climatic history of the planet--documenting variations in insolation (due to quasiperiodic oscillations in the planet's obliquity and orbital elements), volatile mass balance, atmospheric composition, dust storm activity, volcanic eruptions, large impacts, catastrophic floods, solar luminosity, supernovae, and perhaps even a record of microbial life. Beyond their scientific value, the polar regions may soon prove important for another reason--providing a valuable and accessible reservoir of water to support the long-term human exploration of Mars. In this paper we assess the current state of Mars polar research, identify the key questions that motivate the exploration of the polar regions, discuss the extent to which current missions will address these questions, and speculate about what additional capabilities and investigations may be required to address the issues that remain outstanding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Atmosphere / analysis
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Climate
  • Cold Climate*
  • Exobiology*
  • Extraterrestrial Environment
  • Ice / analysis
  • Mars*
  • Space Flight / instrumentation
  • Space Flight / trends


  • Ice
  • Carbon Dioxide