Flowing water clue to life on Mars

Water is still flowing on the surface of Mars, Nasa revealed last night. It means there is a real possibility that life exists on the red planet.

White deposit left by water flowThe space agency’s scientists called the discovery the most important ever made on Mars.

It means astronauts will have access to the most vital necessity for life when they get to Mars and should be able to grow plants for food.

But there was bad news for space missions too. For in a second major revelation, Nasa said that meteorites are still blasting out craters on the Martian surface.

One spotted in a satellite photo is nearly the size of a football stadium and was caused by a 100-kiloton explosion.

Probes had previously seen evidence that water existed on ancient Mars many millions of years ago. Now an orbiting satellite has imaged new white deposits that show it still flows on the surface today.

Britain’s most famous explorer of Mars, Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University, told me last night that the discovery meant life may still exist on Mars.

He said: “This is a very exciting find. They’ve been looking for water for ten years and now they’ve found it. This makes these regions the prime candidate now, as far as I’m concerned, for looking for life on Mars – current life on Mars.”

Professor Pillinger, whose UK Beagle 2 probe crashed on Mars on Christmas Day, 2003, added: “I think everyone was surprised to see those pictures – even the people who took them. I don’t think anyone expected to see something that had happened just a couple of years ago.”

Prof Pillinger, of the Open University, said it was vital to return to the surface of Mars to investigate further.

He told me: “You can’t see anything from an orbiter. You might be able to get some analysis of the white deposits but if you want to do the experiment then you’re going to have to go there. It would make me very keen to send another probe like Beagle there.”

Tens of thousand of gullies were photographed by Mars Global Surveyor during nearly ten years of photographing Mars before contact was lost with the probe last month. Two of them showed evidence that the equivalent of five to ten swimming pools of water had flowed down them since they were first photographed. The water vaporises as it flows, leaving white deposits which are quite unlike the dark tracks left by Mars rovers.

Nasa Mars expert Ken Edgett told a press conference: “You’ve all heard of the smmoking gun. This is the squirting gun. No one expected what we have today. We have been able to image gullies repetedly. We found something we didn’t expect – changes in shapes that showed movement of water was involved.”

The two sites where gullies were photographed were inside unnamed craters in the Terra Sirenum and Centauri Montes regions of southern Mars. The latter flow is pictured here.

Nasa’s Phil Christensen said: “This is a remarkable set of new observations that shows once again how dynamic the surface of Mars is. The mid latitudes of Mars are truly exciting places. Certainly something very remarkable goes on there. The evidence for water is compelling.” New probes at Mars and a future lander called Phoenix are expected to help confirm the amazing discovery.

In the second major announcement, Mike Meyer showed images of new craters blasted out of the surface of Mars. He said 20 had been recorded in the past six to seven years and it was believed they were forming at a rate of 12 a year. “If you lived on Mars, you’d be close enough to hear one a year,” he said.

The impacts are a small but real hazard for any Mars colonies and the high rate could be due to the planet being closer to the asteroid belt.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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