Saturday, March 17, 2007

Large Ice Deposits Found on Mars!

Before I launch into today's story, let me tell you that about 15 inches of snow fell in my area yesterday and last night, a mere TWO DAYS after we had 71 degree temps in my part of the Bay State. The snow removal is complete, and I am back at the keyboard to bring you a story that is HUGE in its implications. Large deposits of ice have been detected at Mars' south pole. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A spacecraft orbiting Mars has scanned huge deposits of water ice at its south pole so plentiful they would blanket the planet in 36 feet of water if they were liquid, scientists said on Thursday.

The scientists used a joint NASA-Italian Space Agency radar instrument on the European Space Agency Mars Express spacecraft to gauge the thickness and volume of ice deposits at the Martian south pole covering an area larger than Texas.

The deposits, up to 2.3 miles thick, are under a polar cap of white frozen carbon dioxide and water, and appear to be composed of at least 90 percent frozen water, with dust mixed in, according to findings published in the journal Science.

Scientists have known that water exists in frozen form at the Martian poles, but this research produced the most accurate measurements of just how much there is. They are eager to learn about the history of water on Mars because water is fundamental to the question of whether the planet has ever harbored microbial or some other life. Liquid water is a necessity for life as we know it. Characteristics like channels on the Martian surface strongly suggest the planet once was very wet, a contrast to its present arid, dusty condition.

Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who led the study, said the same techniques are being used to examine similar ice deposits at the Martian north pole. Radar observations made in late 2005 and early 2006 provided the data on the south pole, and similar observations were taken of the north pole in the past several months, Plaut said.

While images taken by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft made public in December suggested the presence of a small amount of liquid water on the surface, researchers are baffled about the fate of most of the water. The polar deposits contain most of the known water on Mars.

Plaut said the amount of water in the Martian past may have been the equivalent of a global layer hundreds of meters deep, while the polar deposits represent a layer of perhaps tens of meters. "We have this continuing question facing us in studies of Mars, which is: where did all the water go?" Plaut said. "Even if you took the water in these two (polar) ice caps and added it all up, it's still not nearly enough to do all of the work that we've seen that the water has done across the surface of Mars in its history."

Plaut said it appears perhaps 10 percent of the water that once existed on Mars is now trapped in these polar deposits. Other water may exist below the planet's surface or perhaps some was lost into space through the atmosphere, Plaut said.

This is terrific news. It is likely that there is more water on Mars than what has been detected with this finding, and this team will likely find it. The discovery assigns more certainty to the equation that is human colonization of Mars. Now we just have to get our shit together and make the missions happen.

The other equation is that water is a key ingredient for life. Now that a lot more water (though still not very much) has been found than was believed to be present on the Martian surface, and in the soil, it makes one wonder if there could be a hardy form of life on the Red Planet. Such a life form would have to be able to survive an environment with cold temperatures, low atmospheric pressure, an atmosphere that to us would be deadly (mostly Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide) and extremely dry conditions. But the presence of water automatically means that Oxygen is also present in the water, so who knows?

But, another interesting question remains: How the hell DID Mars lose most of its water? There are all sorts of theories, some are practical, others are a little more far-fetched. Plaut is correct when he points to the geological features of Mars that point to these features having been created by erosion combined with the presence of water. That question will be a lot harder to answer.

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