Could the Martian equator be wet? A surprising new analysis of old data suggests that water ice might be hiding beneath the soil at a latitude that scientists previously thought was not possible, reports

The revelation comes after data from the neutron spectrometer aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft picked up significant levels of hydrogen at lower latitudes on the red planet. Though the Mars Odyssey data was originally collected from 2002 to 2009, this is the first time scientists have used the neutron spectrometer to look for water. That's because the neutron spectrometer is not actually intended for the detection of water, but it can detect hydrogen.

Using advanced image-reconstruction techniques, researchers improved the spatial resolution of the data to 180 miles, twice the previous resolution of 320 miles. The extra resolution allows researchers to more accurately detect hydrogen, and therefore make more sophisticated predictions about the form that the hydrogen has taken.

"It was as if we'd cut the spacecraft's orbital altitude in half, and it gave us a much better view of what's happening on the surface," explained Jack Wilson, the study's principal investigator.

Although it's still not possible to say for sure that the extra hydrogen detected by the method is indicative of water ice, the odds of finding water along Mars' equatorial region have gone up significantly. The data at least makes it worth a closer look.

If water is hiding along the Martian equator, it's a mystery as to how it got there; water in this region was believed to be impossible. Even if ice found its way to the lower latitudes after being blown there or deposited in some other fashion, it's unclear how ice along the equator could be preserved.

"Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain," speculated Wilson. "So, for now, the signature remains a mystery worthy of further study, and Mars continues to surprise us."

However water got to the equator, its potential presence makes a future human mission to the planet much more feasible. Astronauts wouldn't need to bring so much water with them; they could live off the land to an extent. A sustained water source along the planet's warmest latitudes would also open to door for long-term colonization, perhaps even some limited agriculture.

It's all the more reason to be excited about the prospect of future manned missions to the red planet, such as those recently announced by SpaceX's Elon Musk, which could launch as soon as 2024.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Water ice might exist along Mars' equator, and scientists don't know how it got there
Finding water ice could change everything we thought we knew about the red planet, and make colonization feasible.