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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

Scientists debate implications of Mars pictures

weather patterns
A global "snapshot" of weather patterns across Mars

Manipulate the Mars Global Surveyor

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Destination Mars


July 20, 1999
Web posted at: 9:05 a.m. EDT (1305 GMT)

By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- Ghosts of water -- past and present -- haunt a new set of photographs taken by NASA's Mars orbiter and released Monday in conjunction with a major conference for red planet researchers.

"This set of photos shows the diversity of things we've been seeing on Mars during the last several months," said Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.

"We see everything from sand dunes covered with frost, water ice clouds hanging over volcanoes and ancient craters being eroded by high winds."

Malin is the principal investigator for the camera onboard Mars Global Surveyor, currently in its fifth month of mapping the red planet. The spacecraft arrived at Mars in 1997.

Dark sand shown in one photo pokes through bright, crisp frost structures that formed in the previous winter. They were photographed in September 1998 in Chasma Boreale, a giant trough at Mars' north polar cap.

"Before, we could hardly make out dunes there," said Rich Zurek, project scientist for the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, set to arrive at the planet in September and December, respectively. Before Mars Global Surveyor, red planet researchers relied on Viking data from the 1970s, which yielded much lower resolution images.

"Now with the new images, we're able to watch when the frost comes and goes and we can see that dunes are moving today and aren't just relics from times past," Zurek said.

frosty dunes
MOC image of frost-covered dunes in Chasma Boreale   

Zurek helped organize the conference held this week at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Another newly released image shows water ice clouds looming over the Tharsis volcano region. Orbiting Mars 12 times a day, Global Surveyor can produce global snapshots of weather patterns.

Other images show what appear to be water-scoured surfaces and valley surfaces pitted and marked by unknown processes.

Scientists now think that water thought to have flooded catastrophically across Mars originated from ice that periodically melted.

Hundreds debate Martian theories

The Fifth International Mars Conference has drawn hundreds of scientists who will discuss such topics as the composition of the Martian atmosphere, the history of volcanoes at Mars, the global history of water at Mars' surface and the potential for life at Mars.

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Some of the major debates center on water: where and when was it on the planet and where did it go, Zurek said. Those debates bring up the tantalizing question of whether there was life on Mars.

"It really is an issue of where was the water then and how was it released on the surface and what are the implications for all that on biological processes," he said.

"And are there any special niches that might have been more favorable to early development? Are there any signatures of ancient lakes and ponds and such?"

Other puzzles involve the timing of the formation of highly layered terrains and major impacts that created basins on the planet.

Some impact craters on the northern plains of Mars exhibit polygonal patterns on their floors   

"We see there is a lot more layering on Mars than was previously thought and whatever the mechanism was that caused it has gone on for a long time," Zurek said.

Scientists also will correlate Mars Global Surveyor's high-resolution maps with altitude and mineral maps of the planet and discuss the curious responsiveness of Mars' atmosphere to dust storms.

"It'd be like having dust storms in Arizona immediately affecting the atmosphere in Brazil," Zurek said.

Mars Global Surveyor is the first mission in NASA's Mars exploration managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

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