Signs of Mars water found

Discovery indicates possibility that planet supports some form of life

December 07, 2006|By Mark K. Matthews | Mark K. Matthews,Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON -- Recent changes on the surface of Mars resemble the effects of a flash flood, researchers said yesterday, raising the likelihood that water is bubbling up to the planet's surface.

The findings offer hope that Earth's neighbor once supported life in some form and still might.

"Life on Earth is very tenacious," said Ken Edgett, one of the scientists involved in the research. "On Mars, if life ever existed in water and the water has stayed liquid, then life also could be hanging out where the water is."

Edgett and others analyzed Mars photos taken since 1997, looking for changes in the terrain. Among the nearly 100,000 images were two showing areas in the southern region of Mars where dry channels were found.

After comparing the sites to earlier pictures taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, the scientists concluded that the newly found channels were carved by a brief flow of liquid water.

`A squirting gun'

It might not be a smoking gun, but "it's a squirting gun," said Edgett, who works for a private company that contracts with NASA. The announcement at NASA headquarters coincides with an article on the findings in the journal Science.

Where the water originated is unknown, although some scientists theorize that it spurted from underground reservoirs. Also unknown is how much liquid water is on Mars and whether it is acidic.

Astronomers are optimistic that the possibility of water could pave the way for more answers about the fourth planet from the sun, especially because finding water increases the possibility of finding organisms similar to those on Earth.

"The source of this water is a wonderful scientific debate," said Phil Christensen, who researches interplanetary geology at Arizona State University.

Researchers said yesterday that they think the water came from underground aquifers, but other scientists think it could have come from melted ice.

Liquid water on Mars has intrigued scientists since early astronomers first trained their telescopes on the planet. Mars has ice caps similar to those on Earth, and it was thought that the presence of ice at the poles hinted at unfrozen water elsewhere.

Mapping missions to Mars during the 1970s revealed dry riverbeds on the surface, evidence the planet once had water aboveground. Subsequent trips also confirmed that frost blanketed parts of Mars during its winter.

The search for water intensified in the early 2000s with visits by a new generation of spacecraft. In 2002, the Mars Odyssey, an orbiting science lab, used scanners to find ice just below Mars' surface.

Two years later, a robotic rover on the surface found rocks that scientists think were once covered in water. Tests of Mars' atmosphere have shown the presence of trace amounts of water vapor in the air.

But evidence of liquid water has remained elusive.

"The Holy Grail for us has been modern, liquid water," said David Beaty, a top scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California-based institution that oversees robotic exploration.

Beaty said NASA could take a couple of steps to confirm the findings, which were made by Malin Space Science Systems. Among them would be the use of high-resolution cameras and a radar that can detect the presence of shallow water.

Rough terrain

NASA cannot send either of its Mars rovers to investigate. The terrain is too rough, and possible water sites fall under strict protections similar to those at a wildlife refuge.

The concern is that rovers could bring Earth bacteria to sites where Mars organisms might live. That could corrupt data gathered from those protected sites.

"Basically, it means that [robot or human explorers] could discover bacteria from Florida, rather than Mars," said John Rummel, senior scientist for astro-biology for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA has a method of disinfecting interplanetary equipment to prevent such contamination, but neither rover underwent this cleaning.

Mark K. Matthews writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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