Mars Scientists Intensify Search for Water

Aalok Mehta in San Francisco
National Geographic News Staff Writer
December 15, 2006

Spurred on by the apparent discovery of evidence of very recent liquid water on Mars, researchers are boosting their efforts to determine whether water is flowing on the red planet's surface right now.

At the same time, new findings from the satellites and rovers studying Mars are unraveling the central role water has played in shaping the planet.

This week scientists announced a plan to use powerful imaging instruments on NASA's newest red planet spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to focus on gullies. Sediment deposits found in such areas would unmistakably confirm the presence of water.

"We've moved it up the priority list," said Roger Phillips of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, a leader of the orbiter's radar team.

"We hope for results by the end of next month."

Phillips and other NASA researchers presented their new Mars findings Wednesday in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Below the Surface

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter entered the planet's orbit in March. The spacecraft has already peeked below the planet's ice-covered poles, revealing complicated layers just beneath the surface.

These strata represent "a tape recorder of the climatic history of the planet," Phillips said.

The findings allow scientists to begin piecing together the planet's climate cycles as far back as hundreds of millions of years.

The orbiter has also found deposits of ancient, water-bearing clays and gypsum, added John Mustard of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Such minerals "record the history of the interaction between water and the surface of Mars," he said.

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