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                   Visual evidence suggests water springs on  Mars
                    
                   http://www.cnn.com/2000/TECH/space/06/22/mars.water.03/

                   By Richard Stenger
                   CNN.com Writer

                   (CNN) -- Liquid water in the recent past likely formed distinct gullies and deltas on
                   Mars, scientists said Thursday. The discovery bolstered hopes that the red planet
                   could harbor simple life and someday host human colonists.

                   "The presence of liquid water on Mars has profound implications for the question of
                   life not only in the past, but perhaps even today," NASA Associate Administrator Ed
                   Weiler told reporters.

                   Water seepage and surface runoff could have formed
                   more than 100 rare landforms found along steep cliffs
                   "a million years ago, a thousand years ago, perhaps
                   yesterday," Weiler said.

                   Planetary geologists made the discovery by combing
                   through recent photos taken by the Mars Global
                   Surveyor spacecraft. The images show the smallest
                   features ever observed from martian orbit, about the
                   size of a sport-utility vehicle.

                   Water mostly in the south

                   "These are new landforms that have never been seen
                   before on Mars," principal investigator Michael Malin
                   said. "We see features that look like gullies formed by
                   flowing water and the deposits of soil and rocks transported by these flows."

                   Mostly in high latitudes and the southern hemisphere, the sites include gullies and
                   alluvial fans within the walls or rims of pits, valleys and impact craters. More than
                   90 percent occur south of the equator and most occur on slopes that face away
                   from the sun.

                   "We were quite surprised and confused by it. It didn't fit our model of what Mars is
                   like," said Malin of the Surveyor data. Malin Space Sciences operates a camera
                   onboard the NASA satellite, which has orbited Mars since 1997.

                   Scientists have long thought Mars' surface coursed with water billions of years ago,
                   based on evidence of liquid erosion and signs of ancient channels and seas. But the
                   water all but disappeared as the planet cooled and its atmosphere thinned.

                   'Dragged kicking and screaming'

                                               Water is known to exist today as ice in the
                                               northern polar cap and as vapor in faint
                                               clouds. But the presence of liquid water
                                               near the surface could strengthen the theory
                                               that life exists or once existed on Mars.

                                               "If life ever did develop there, and if it
                                               survives to the present time, then these
                                               landforms would be great places to look,"
                                               Weiler said.

                                               Liquid water on Mars would also make
                                               travel to the planet easier. Astronauts could
                                               convert water into hydrogen and oxygen,
                   using both as rocket fuel and the second for breathing gas.

                   Ken Edgett, the co-author of the Science Magazine report, was at first skeptical that
                   water formed the unusual features.

                   "I was dragged kicking and screaming to this conclusion," but the visual evidence
                   linking groundwater discharges as the cause was too strong, he said.

                   The water is thought to exist about 100 to 400 meters (300 to 1,300 feet) below the
                   surface. Malin estimated the volume of a typical flow at about 2,500 cubic meters
                   (90,000 cubic feet), "which would fill half a dozen or so swimming pools."

                   Troubling questions remain

                   Still some troubling questions remain. Why do the discharges take place in the
                   coldest areas on Mars, near the poles and on slopes facing the poles?

                   Malin suggested that that the groundwater could be some exotic salty brine with
                   unknown physical properties.

                   U.S. Geological Survey scientist Kenneth Tanaka suggested in Science that frozen
                   carbon dioxide, flashing into a liquid and then gas, could be the culprit.

                   NASA plans to launch an orbiter in 2001 that will examine the seepage sites for
                   evidence of water-related minerals. The agency is considering two options for an
                   unmanned mission to Mars in 2003.

                   The Mars Polar Lander was to search for martian water in 1999. The doomed robot
                   ship was to dig beneath the surface and study the atmosphere, but went silent as it
                   entered the atmosphere of the red planet.

                              Correspondent Miles O'Brien contributed to this report.
 
 
 

November  2000 
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