RES Subglacial Mapping for Extraterrestrial Colonization

RES Subglacial Mapping Used to Assess Extraterrestrial Colonization

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Eric Phelan

Successful colonization of another planet involves countless variables being addressed prior to mission launch. Water, being essential to sustaining human life, must be available in sizable quantities in order to establish a fruitful, long-term colony. But even with water filtration systems operating at one hundred percent efficiency, a viable native source of water must be identified on the planet if the colony is ever expected to prosper. Radio Echo Sounding may provide a solution to this problem.


Radio Echo Sounding, Ice Penetrating Radar, or more commonly Radioglaciology, has been used for many years to map the subsurface of glaciers all across the globe. From massive canyons to pockets of trapped volcanic ash, RES has been a valuable tool in understanding how glaciers form and what they contain. In more recent years, studies have been conducted on the identification of subglacial lakes. These results may prove valuable when locating viable and continuous sources of water on otherwise desolate planets. We have already identified large ice caps on Mars [1] and that Jupiter’s Satellite, Europa, is covered in water ice [2]. We have even discovered small pockets of ice in craters on the moon [3]. The issue is that we must somehow extract usable water from these locations. It would be too costly and inefficient to continuously melt ice for use, so the next option is to identify pockets of fresh water in the ice. Radioglaciology gets us one step closer to identifying ideal colony locations by first locating large subglacial lakes. These subsurface fresh water bodies could provide just enough water for a colony to grow steadily and flourish. While scientists utilize RES here on Earth, we get one step closer to colonization of other planets.

Greenland: Beneath the Ice

As early as 1964, advanced RES techniques were being used in Greenland to map the subsurface beneath the mile thick ice sheet. [4]

Just last year, RES surveys helped make a discovery of massive proportions. A canyon 50 percent longer than Arizona’s Grand Canyon was discovered snaking its way north toward Petermann Glacier [5][6]. This allowed scientists to extrapolate subsurface river data proving that looking beneath the surface of the ice on our own world delivers extremely valuable information that we otherwise would have failed to acquire. If we can find ancient river systems and lakes on Earth using this technique, it should be viable on other planets.

Antarctica: The Hostile Habitat

As more research teams explore Antarctica, the use of RES surveying is becoming more extensive. The concept that is being tested here is that liquid water can form beneath these ice sheets due to the bed being above water’s pressure melting point. These surveys have found 379 lakes in Antarctica nearly 4000 meters beneath the ice [7]. While scientists are currently more interested in finding life that miraculously escaped extinction 35 million years ago, these lakes also are important in determining whether other planets may have enough liquid water housed in their ice caps to support a human population.

Although the popular and most commonly used methodology of RES surveys employs airplanes with radio equipment, satellites are also viable tools for the job. A satellite deployed in orbit around a planet can map elevation changes in ice sheets that are indicative of subsurface water movements. The more movements there are, the more active the lakes and rivers are beneath the surface. Knowing this can help us determine whether lakes are replenishing quickly or have a limited source of water.

As Antarctica is arguably the most hostile surface environment on Earth, it is a good training ground for setting up an extraterrestrial colony. Exposure to the inclement weather can cause irreversible damage to the human body within minutes, testing the boundaries of what our technology and potential colonists can handle. Establishing drilling projects to extract water from these subglacial lakes may be the natural “next step” in determining our capacity to survive on other planets.

If we can manage to transport liquid water from 2.5 miles beneath the surface to an outpost above, we will have tested and proved a technology that could someday be used on other worlds.

Space Colonization

Figure 3: Artist’s conception of a moon base

The moon is a likely first candidate for space colonization. With the discovery of large concentrations of frozen water in deep craters on the moon in 2009 [3], humanity may have more incentive than ever before to establish a colony there. With the ability to find pockets of water in these ice pits, we are well on our way to finding a viable location on the lunar surface to establish a new home.

RES surveys of the moon can be conducted from Earth’s surface, but for greater resolution we must get closer. Placing RES satellites in orbit around the moon would allow us to pinpoint liquid water access spots. The same technique would be viable on Mars and, eventually, Europa. If we can establish a stable colony on the moon first, though, we will be one step closer to reaching our full potential as a species.


The number of planets out in space is immeasurable. If only a fraction of them had water ice on the surface, it would open us up to countless possibilities. With the advancement of RES technologies, we will one day be able to detect water in places that we would have otherwise missed.

Finding pockets of water buried deep beneath the ice on Mars or Europa using RES techniques would go a long way toward expanding humanity’s reach into the known universe. We could finally establish colonies on planets that were once thought to be impossible to access.

It may be the stuff of science fiction today, but someday in the future this data will be used by engineers and architects to plan out large scale cityscapes that support thousands of lives. It would be the dawn of a new golden age for human civilization, and all of it made possible through the advancement of RES technologies.

[1] Bibring, J., Langevin, Y., Poulet, F., Gendrin, A., & al, e. (2004). Perennial water ice identified in the south polar cap of mars. Nature, 428(6983), 627-30. Retrieved from

[2] Chyba, C. F., & Phillips, C. B. (2002). Europa as an abode of life. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 32(1), 47-68. doi:

[3] Cowen, R. (2009, Oct 24). The damp moon: Team finds water on lunar surface. Science News, 176, 10. Retrieved from

[4] TURCHETTI, S., DEAN, K., NAYLOR, S., & SIEGERT, M. (2008). Accidents and opportunities: A history of the radio echo-sounding of antarctica, 1958-79. British Journal for the History of Science, 41(3), 417-444. doi:

[5] Wayman, E. (2013, Oct 05). Introducing. Science News, 184, 4. Retrieved from

[6] Oskin, B. (2013, August 29). ‘Grand Canyon’ of Greenland Discovered Under Ice Sheet. LiveScience. Retrieved from

[7] Davies, B. (n.d.). Antarctic subglacial lakes. Retrieved from

[8] Space colonization. (n.d.). Princeton University. Retrieved from