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New images suggest a snowy past on Mars

Just a few feet beneath its seemingly barren surface, enormous deposits of ice lay buried on Mars. Scientists have long speculated upon the properties of the ice, but until recently, imaging technology has been limited to relatively coarse radar sounding and small samples drilled from land-bound rovers.

A new study to learn more about the potential of water on Mars was led by the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff. They used the infrared features of the HiRISE camera (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to capture high-resolution images of thick ice sheets located underneath eight sloped regions of the planet. These regions are called scarps.

The sheets extend more than 300 feet deep. Improving upon previous technology, the HiRISE is able to provide three-dimensional cross-sections of the sheets, revealing the vertical structures of the ice sheets for the first time. From these images, scientists are able to observe individual layers and find out how the ice was formed. With only a few feet of rock and dust to guard the pure ice sheets, NASA is optimistic that these clean ice water sheets will be accessible for physical extraction in future missions.

Much of the excitement from this new study stems from the purity of the ice. Unlike previous samples where ice was mixed in with rock and dust like a sedimentary slush puppy of sorts, the images taken in this new study show that the majority of the layers in these sheets are largely uninterrupted by debris.

Colin Dundas is the research geologist leading the study. Similar to how scientists study ice cores drilled from glaciers here on Earth, Dundas and his team use the Martian sheets as a window to peer into the planet’s past climate.

“In the case of what we’re seeing with the way the ice is layered, it tells us that this was formed as a snowpack rather than just water condensing in the dirt,” he said. “It tells us that there’s been enough snowfall on Mars to build up a 300-foot sheet of ice.”

Currently, precipitation occasionally forms but doesn’t reach the surface of Mars. Dundas explains that these sheets were probably originally part of the Red Planet’s North and South Poles. Billions of years ago, the planet’s axial tilt varied between 15 and 35 degrees. Today, it sits at 25 degrees, just fractions away from Earth’s 23.5.

“Once the axis tilted, the ice caps got warmer and lost ice,” he said. “They probably got redeposited at mid-latitude. And that’s what we’re seeing now.”

Scientists still don’t have a definite answer as to whether Mars was once able to support life, but evidence of snow made from the same water as on Earth makes one wonder what discoveries still await us on Mars.

Eric Duong is this year’s NAU-NASA Space Grant science-writing intern at the Arizona Daily Sun.

Flagstaff schools in need of replace and repair worth $95 million

A consulting group is recommending that FUSD spend nearly $95 million to refurbish most of its 17 district buildings, replace two elementary schools and the portable wing at another school.

The H2 Group recently presented the findings of a yearlong assessment of the district’s schools and administration building to the FUSD board. According to the report, the average age of an FUSD building is about 47 years.

Most of the buildings have been well-maintained over the years and are in good shape for their age, said architect Paul Hartley. The district has been doing a good job at maintaining and trying to keep on top of repairs to the buildings. However, the everyday wear and tear of thousands of students, staff and teachers has taken a toll on the buildings and fixtures, carpeting, floors and other equipment have exceeded their recommended lifespan and need to be upgraded or replaced.

At least three schools, Kinsey and Killip elementary schools and the portable buildings at Mount Elden Middle School, should probably be replaced with new buildings, Hartley said. Kinsey, Killip and Mount Elden are some of the district’s oldest schools, with Kinsey being built in 1958, Killip in 1948 and Mount Elden in 1958.

The group estimates that the cost to replace the buildings at about $36,233,772. It would cost about $9,486,694 to patch the three schools up and keep them running for another few years.

However, these estimates could change based on prices for labor and materials, he said.

All three of these schools need extensive repairs, Hartley said. For example, at Kinsey and Killip, repairs need to be made to the roof, the hallways are not compliant with current Americans with Disabilities Act standards, the single-pane windows need to be replaced, the restrooms need to be refurbished, doors and door frames need to be fixed, the heating and cooling system needs to be replaced, the electrical system needs to be replaced and more. Any new work in the building would have to be done according to current building codes and meet current ADA standards. And there is the possibility of environmental hazards such as lead paint and asbestos.

The portable buildings at Mount Elden have outlived their lifespan and have gaps under the buildings that can let in pests.

The main problems noticed at nearly all of the schools by H2 were cracking parking lots and sidewalks, old heating and cooling systems, worn flooring, worn cabinets and countertops, outdated fire and security systems, the need for roof repairs and the need for upgrades to come into compliance with the current ADA requirements. H2 estimated the cost to repair these buildings at a total of about $68,013,914 including repairs, but not replacing, Killip, Kinsey and Mt. Elden’s portable buildings.

Most of the repairs are due to the age of the buildings and the everyday wear and tear that the buildings get over the years, such as rusted window frames and water damaged ceiling tiles from leaking roofs, Hartley said. A lot of the outside damage to the buildings comes from Flagstaff’s rapid freeze/thaw cycles during the winter, which causes a lot of damage to pavement, walls and roofs.

“Your climate is just hard on your facilities,” he said. Flagstaff schools face problems that other Arizona schools don’t because of the weather.

Most of these repairs can be spread out over the next several years because they aren’t a risk to the health or safety of the students, Hartley said.

Other items, like the plumbing, electrical, roofs, heating and cooling systems, haven’t been upgraded since the schools were built and need to be replaced because they’ve exceeded their life span and are no longer efficient.

H2 Engineer Jalal Avades pointed out that many of the schools only have one heating and cooling system. If that system should fail, especially in the winter, the district may have to close the school to repair or, more likely, replace the system. The plumbing and electrical systems in most of the schools should also be rebuilt or upgraded.

“Codes have changed a lot since many of these schools were built,” he said.

In order to finance the repairs and replacements, Hartley recommended the school look at asking voters to approve a bond.

“Bonds are really the only vehicle available to most school districts to fund repairs,” he said.

The state’s Schools Facilities Board can help with some projects but is unlikely to provide all of the funding the district would need to make all of the repairs necessary or fully fund the replacement of some of the schools.

The FUSD Governing Board is currently researching the idea of going to local voters with a bond and/or override issue. On Jan. 9, the board approved hiring an election consultant to do some public opinion research on the possibility of a bond and/or override on the November ballot. That consultant is expected to report back to the board in May with his results and recommendations.