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Martian Dunes May Harbor Life

Hungarian researcher Eors Szathmary, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Budapest, team says living organisms can be found in certain areas on Mars. He calls the areas ?dark dune spots? and says these changing features are ?probable Martian surface organisms.? His team?s evidence is based on studies of imagery from by NASA?s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), a spacecraft now orbiting that planet.

After analyzing Mars Global Surveyor pictures, one region of Mars has been picked by the Hungarian team as a test field for the dark dune spots. That area is a ridged landform known as ?Inca City.?

Using the MGS pictures, the shape, pattern changes, fading and reappearance of the spots in Inca City were catalogued. Szathmary and his team analyzed MGS photos from 1999 to 2001, from winter to summer. They observed seasonal changes of the dark dune spots on frosted and defrosted Martian dunes.

Each spring, ?gray fuzzy spots? appear in the bottom of the ice cover. By the middle of the first half of spring, these spots become darker and grow in size. By early summer defrosting, the naked dark soil of the dune is visible, surrounded by a lighter ring. Year by year, the dark dune spots return to the same place with almost the same configuration. This repeat action strengthens their theory that there are biological causes for the spot formation.

Szathmary and his team report, ?We interpret the sequence of dark dune spot formation and changes as a result of?probable Martian surface organisms.? The Martian organisms ?survive below the surface ice, sunlight heats them up and they generate their living conditions.?

The dark dune spots vary in size, and can be dozens of miles across. Their thickness varies from 30 feet to over 650 feet. The Hungarian team?s report points out that ?the shape, location, development and other features of the dark dune spots suggest that some fluid phase must be involved in their explanation, which under the given circumstances can?t be anything else but liquid water. Dark dune spots are circular on flat surfaces. Defrosting cannot be responsible for this since it is affected by various surface conditions. We think that [the] melting of the ice is influenced by some biological factors.? They believe the ice is heated up by the organisms as they absorb sunlight, then they grow and reproduce through photosynthesis. In this process, they generate their own living conditions.

Other Mars researchers feel their conclusions are premature. Bruce Jakosky, a Mars researcher at the University of Colorado, says, ?Given our understanding of Mars? volatile and dust-related processes, it seems premature to attribute the characteristics that they identify to biological activity when other, simpler processes have not been ruled out.?

Mike Malin and Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego believe that straightforward defrosting of the Martian ice cover is responsible for the origin and development of the spots.

James Garvin, Mars Exploration Program Scientist at NASA says, ?The dark spots on the polar dunes that are discussed deserve more attention, due to their intriguing time-variable behavior. But we have to recognize that we are examining features at scales no finer than 10-20 feet, certainly not adequate to draw definitive conclusions about whether biological processes were involved in their origin.?

Ronald Greeley, of Arizona State University, says, ?Certainly the discovery of these features in the images rank with the most intriguing features revealed by Mars Global Surveyor?s high-resolution camera. The Hungarians work through a set of logical descriptions and analyses of how the features might form, then draw the conclusion that dark dune spots are indicative of biological activity. Unfortunately, this last step is not convincing. It is not that this hypothesis is not possible, it is just that the data do not support it.?

The Hungarian team believes that life is incredibly tough and prolific and says, ?Not only liquid water, but even water vapor can sustain this form of life.?

To learn more about possible life on Mars, read ?Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets? by Tom Van Flandern,click here.

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