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Mars polar cap may hide water reserve

By Richard Stenger (CNN)

View of the north polar ice cap from the Mars Global Surveyor
View of the north polar ice cap from the Mars Global Surveyor

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(CNN) -- A permanent cache of frozen water probably lies underneath the seasonal cap of carbon dioxide that covers the north pole of Mars, planetary scientists announced Tuesday.

The conclusion is based on data from a NASA satellite orbiting the red planet, the Mars Odyssey, which watched the seasonal polar cap shrink between winter and spring this year.

The observations offered evidence that a "water-ice-rich permanent terrain" underlies a frosty cap of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, Mars Odyssey scientist Bill Feldman and colleagues said in statement.

Feldman, a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, presented the findings Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Science conference in Birmingham, Alabama.

Society spokesman Ellis Miner said the Odyssey observations provided strong physical support for what scientists previously had only theorized.

"The polar region seems to retain water ice year-round, and the dry ice forms on top of it in the winter," said Miner, also a NASA planetary scientist. "As the spring warms the pole, the dry ice begins to evaporate and becomes part of the atmosphere.

"Most of that part scientists believed all along. The difference now is we have some specific measurements that verify it, that give us some details we didn't have before."

The Mars Odyssey, which arrived at the red planet in October 2001, is equipped with an infrared imager, mineral mapper and groundwater detector.

The NASA spacecraft has detected vast stores of suspected water ice in other areas of the red planet as well, including the south polar region.

While cold, barren and mostly dry on the surface now, Mars might once have teemed with oceans and possibly life billions of years ago, scientists theorize.

Moreover, in recent years, detailed images from another red planet satellite, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, have provided visual evidence that water might still seep to the surface on occasion.

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