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.
· Mars Missions
· Mars 101
· Image Gallery
"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
"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.
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