New images of Mars disclose more secrets of planet
     February 17, 1999
     Web posted at: 5:41 p.m. EST (2241 GMT)
     LONDON (Reuters) -- Scientists are closer to piecing together a view
     of the early climate on Mars that could help answer the question of
     whether life existed on the red planet.
     The latest images from the Mars Global Surveyor mission, currently
     orbiting Mars, show evidence of volcanoes, wind and valley formations
     created by a groundwater source of flowing water, researchers said on
     In letters published in the science journal, Nature, the researchers
     said high-resolution pictures from the Mars Orbiter Camera, 20-40
     times better than previous images, suggest Mars was not always the
     cold, dry planet it is today.
     "The images being acquired by the Mars Orbiter Camera support an
     origin of the valley networks by fluid erosion; the nature of the
     landforms suggest that this fluid was water. In most cases the source
     appears to have been ground water," said Michael Malin and Michael
     Carr of the U.S. Geological Survey.
     The scientists also found layering in the 4,000 km long (2,500 miles)
     Valles Marineris canyon system, indicating volcanic activity in the
     first billion years of the planet.
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     "The groundwater observation was a real home run. It was fairly
     definitive," Maria Zuber, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts
     Institute of Technology who evaluated all the research, said in a
     telephone interview.
     "It's very clear that these features had a groundwater source," she
     said, adding that the conditions were favorable for the development of
     life but did not prove it.
     In another letter, William Hartmann and colleagues from the Planetary
     Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said detailed mapping of the age
     of the different regions suggests that volcanic activity was a
     continuing process on the planet.
     Like groundwater, volcanoes are important because they melt ice into
     the water which supports life. They also release gases which could
     have warmed up the planet.
     "What the observations do is place early Mars in a better framework
     that is better understood. Ultimately before we figure out whether
     life ever existed we must have a better knowledge of the state of the
     planet at a particular time. That is what these observations are
     starting to provide," Zuber said.

January  1999
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