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Mars: Water or Ice?

Mars has come closer to Earth than it's been at any time since 57,617 BC, when both early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals could look up at the sky and see it. Soon we'll know the answer to the hottest Martian debate: Is there (or was there) water?and therefore life?on Mars?

Robert Roy Britt writes in Space.com that spacecraft sent to take a peek show that Mars has lots of frozen water. "It's really a huge amount of ice," says NASA researcher William Boynton.

There's also evidence of liquid water flowing down Martian cliffs. Michael Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems, says, "This story, I don't believe, will be answered until someone goes to one of these cliffs with a pick and shovel and digs into it."

"Periodic variations in the Martian orbit allow a warmer climate to develop every 50,000 years," says researcher Peter H. Smith. "During these periods the ice can melt, dormant organisms could come back to life, (if there are indeed any), and evolution can proceed. Our mission will verify whether the northern plains are indeed a last viable habitat on Mars."

Geologist Joshua Bandfield thinks Mars has water but might never have had oceans, making it less likely that life ever got started there. He's puzzled by the fact that the two halves of Mars are so different. The southern one is features ancient highlands, while the north contains a lot of younger, low-lying terrain. Rocks in each hemisphere seemed to have formed by different means. "We really don't have any clue as to why that happened," Bandfield says.

David Cohen writes in New Scientist that some scientists have decided that Mars was always cold and frozen, with no liquid water?and therefore, no life. A new study of the surface reveals only traces of carbonates. If there had been large bodies of water, there would have been much more of these minerals present.

"We found carbonate, but we've only trace amounts," says Philip Christensen. "This really points to a cold, frozen, icy Mars that has probably always been that way. We believe that the relatively small amounts that we see probably did not come from oceans, but from the [carbon dioxide] atmosphere interacting directly with dust."

Other scientists think the carbonate is hidden beneath layers of surface dust or rock, but Christensen says, "We see so much erosion in canyons, and valleys and plains that have been stripped bare. It seems unlikely that the carbonate rocks could all be hiding out of view. When you look at the entire planet, you'd think that somewhere a little piece would be exposed."

Geologist Ross Irwin says, "Lots of basins have been resurfaced on Mars. Carbonate could be in the subsurface or buried beneath sediment. There could be extensive carbonate deposits that are difficult to locate." He thinks that many topographic features, such as basins and river beds, look like they were clearly carved by running water.

Some say it's a waste of time to call on extraterrestrials, while others communicate with them all the time.

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