- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) — Satellite images of a layer of snow on the sides of a Martian crater suggest the red planet might still be concealing water just inches below the surface, scientists reported Wednesday.

The images were collected as the scientists were looking for an explanation for the famous Martian grooves resembling deep, dried-up creek beds.

When they examined a particular crater on the red planet, they saw patches of snow or remnants of snow on the walls, as well as gullies that appear to emerge from the patches, said Phillip Christensen, professor of geology at Arizona State University at Tempe and head of research for NASA's Odyssey camera system.

"I think if we were to land on one of those (snow patches) and stick a shovel in the ground, you'd be shoveling snow," Christensen commented. "If life ever existed on Mars, I can't think of a more exciting place to possibly go."

From analyzing information gathered by the Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor spacecrafts, launched in 2001 and 1996 respectively, Christensen said thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of years ago, water trickled from melting snow on Mars and carved out the gullies seen today.

Scientists have theorized the gullies were formed long ago when water spewed forth from springs. Christensen said he doubts this hypothesis. On Earth, springs are not found at the tops of ridges. Plus, water spraying into the air would turn to vapor immediately in the thin Martian atmosphere, he added.

The patches captured by Odyssey cameras could be snow and what saves them from disappearing completely is a layer of dust and dirt that has settled on top, Christensen remarked. The dust layer stops the snow from evaporating into the air, he said, and is thin enough to allow sunlight to penetrate. The light, in theory, could travel through the snow, melting it relatively close to the surface — from inches below to several feet.

"The beauty of snow is that it acts as its own greenhouse even if it's cold," Christensen noted. "Snow acts as a blanket." It protects liquid water below the surface — liquid water on Mars translates into the possibility of life.

"No one's proposing we've found life but we've found a remarkably interesting possibility of where to look," Christensen explained.

"What (they have) done is (expand) the envelope in terms of places on Mars that could conceivably be habitable even today," said Lynn Rothschild, researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffet Field, Calif.

Rothschild explained that some organisms, such as snow algae, can live in extremely cold temperatures. For example, microscopic algae live in patches in arctic regions where they turn snow a fuchsia color.

Although experts agree water did flow on Mars at one time, the debate continues over whether liquid water exists on the planet today.

John Mustard, professor of geological sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said he suspects Mars harbors no liquid water today. Dust from the atmosphere that has accumulated on top of the snow is probably too thick for light to penetrate, he said.

"I think in terms of liquid water, Mars is on the verge of being habitable," said Bruce Jakosky, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Jakosky added there is a chance for partial melting of snow on Mars despite the cold temperatures.

To find out just how good the chances are, Christensen said future projects could include landing a spacecraft in the crater — which he termed "easily landable" — to probe for the existence of water.

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