- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

DARMSTADT, Germany — A European spacecraft has found the most direct evidence yet of water in the form of ice on Mars, detecting molecules vaporizing from the Red Planet’s south pole, scientists said yesterday.

The quest for water on Mars — which could indicate life — has fascinated scientists for centuries.

The discovery, made with infrared cameras, came as U.S. scientists at NASA announced that the Spirit rover now exploring the Mars surface on a separate mission had resumed transmitting data to Earth after a nerve-wracking two-day technical glitch.

The six-wheeled rover communicated for 10 minutes at 4:30 a.m. and transmitted some data for 20 minutes about an hour later, officials announced early yesterday.

“The spacecraft sent limited data in a proper response to a ground command, and we’re planning for commanding further communication sessions later today,” said Pete Theisinger, mission project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

But Mr. Theisinger said Spirit’s computer systems are still indicating that they sense an undetermined problem and it is likely that things won’t be back to normal “for many days, perhaps a couple of weeks, even under the best of circumstances.”

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express, launched last year, made the ice-cap discovery while taking measurements and photos of the planet’s south pole.

Scientists have long believed the planet’s poles contain frozen water, but previous findings — including NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter’s evidence of large amounts of ice in 2001 — were based more on inferences and not direct evidence, European scientists said.

The European camera has for the first time been able to “literally map the polar cap” using infrared technology that shows where water molecules are present, said scientist Jean-Pierre Bibring.

“You look at the picture, look at the fingerprint, and say this is water ice,” said agency scientist Allen Moorehouse.

James Garvin, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars exploration program, said yesterday that Mars Express had offered further confirmation of what scientists have long known: “Mars is a water planet.”

If Mars once had surface water, it had the potential to support life, although members of the European project stressed it was too early to draw conclusions.

In coming months, European scientists will switch on Mars Express’ powerful radar, which is capable of probing below the surface, beyond the range of the infrared camera. The radar will be searching for carbonates — contained in limestone — that would help prove whether water once flowed.

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