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Denver 2003 Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 19:26 GMT
Ankle-deep on Mars
Mars might one day support life (BBC)
'Mars meets all the requirements to support life'
Amos, BBC

If the water-ice hidden just below the Martian surface were to melt, it would create a planet-wide sea ankle-deep, scientists have said.

The latest findings from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft now in orbit around the Red Planet were released here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The spacecraft's instruments have been trained on the Martian soil for nearly a year.

Evidence of recent running water?
Evidence of recent running water?
The data collected has allowed researchers to complete their first global map of where hydrogen (a signature for water) is hidden just below the planet's surface.

"It's become increasingly clear that Mars has enough water to support future human exploration," said Bill Friedman, whose Los Alamos National Laboratory runs the neutron spectrometer on Odyssey.

"In fact, there's enough to cover the entire planet to a depth of at least five inches [13 cm], and we've only analysed the top few feet of soil."

The map shows that from 55 degrees latitude to the poles, Mars has extensive deposits of soil that are rich in water-ice, bearing an average of 50% water by mass.

In other words, one kilogram of soil would yield half a kilo of water if it were baked in an oven by, for example, astronauts who needed drinking water to sustain themselves on the planet.

The Los Alamos instrument detects neutrons generated when cosmic rays slam into the atoms that make up the Martian soil. Different atoms give off neutrons with specific energies.

River valleys

By looking for the signature of hydrogen - a major constituent of water molecules - Odyssey can infer the presence of water-ice near the poles and hydrated minerals in lower latitudes.

These are exciting times for Mars researchers. There are good indications that, on occasions, water still runs across the surface of the planet.

The Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which has been in orbit much longer than Odyssey, has detected what look like channels and river valleys.

The data all support the current theory that the Martian surface was once wetter and warmer than it is now.

Dr Maria Zuber, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the BBC: "People are now starting to think it's possible that Mars might even have had twice as much water initially when it accreted than the Earth did and that's very exciting indeed."

Researchers have yet to explain satisfactorily where all the water went. If much of it now appears to be in sub-surface soils, they need to work out how it got there.

Professor Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado, told the AAAS: "Mars meets all the environment requirements to be able to support life: liquid water, availability of all the elements out of which you would construct life and a source of energy that could be able to support metabolism.

"That doesn't prove there's life on Mars but it says it's plausible and not a stupid idea to go and look."

The US and European space agencies are preparing to launch landers to the planet later this year.

The BBC's Tom Heap
New spacecraft are heading to Mars
Denver, BBC

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See also:

07 Jan 03 | Science/Nature
06 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
29 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
28 May 02 | Science/Nature
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