The strangely festive picture, taken by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite, was published on Friday, and clearly shows the 50-mile wide Korolev crater filled with a staggering 2,200 cubic kilometres of water – enough to sustain colonists for centuries. This in turn boosts the hopes of those keen to establish permanent bases on Mars – because scientists now believe molecules of hydrogen can be “harvested” from water to provide rocket fuel, with the resultant oxygen being used to support life. The vast reserves contained in the Korolev crater alone could theoretically be enough to sustain colonists for many years.
A study published by the scientific journal Nature Communications in July showed it would be possible to separate molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in water to provide fuel for rockets.
In a article published on www.sciencealert.com shortly afterwards, Swansea University’s Dr Charlie Dunhill commented: “Using the unbounded resource of the sun to power our everyday life is one of the biggest challenges on Earth.
“As we are slowly moving away from oil towards renewable sources of energy, researchers are interested in the possibility of using hydrogen as fuel.
“The best way to do this would be by splitting water (H2O) into its constituents: hydrogen and oxygen.
“This is possible using a process known as electrolysis, which involves running a current through a water sample containing some soluble electrolyte.
“This breaks down the water into oxygen and hydrogen, which are released separately at the two electrodes.
“Hydrogen and oxygen produced in this way from water could also be used as fuel on a spacecraft.
“Launching a rocket with water would in fact be a lot safer than launching it with additional rocket fuel and oxygen on board, which can be explosive.
“Once in space, special technology could split the water into hydrogen and oxygen which in turn could be used to sustain life or to power electronics via fuel cells.”
Dr Dunhill warned while the process was theoretically possible, it was yet to become readily available on Earth because hydrogen-related infrastructure, such as hydrogen refilling stations, were needed.
ESA’s Mars Express mission launched on June 2, 2003, reaching reached Mars six months later.
It fired its main engine and entered orbit around the Red Planet on Christmas Day 2003, making this month the 15-year anniversary of the spacecraft’s orbit insertion and the beginning of its science programme.
A statement carried on the ESA’s website said: “It is an especially well-preserved example of a martian crater and is filled not by snow but ice, with its centre hosting a mound of water ice some 1.8 kilometres thick all year round.
“This ever-icy presence is due to an interesting phenomenon known as a ‘cold trap’, which occurs as the name suggests.”
The crater’s floor is deep, lying some two kilometres vertically beneath its rim, it added.
SpaceX founder Mr Musk outlined his plans for colonisation of Mars in a paper published earlier this year entitled Making Life Multi-Planetary.
While he made specific reference to Korolev crater, the document said the first trip – which he hopes will arrive in 2022 – would drop off equipment to harvest water and carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into methane using solar energy.