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Mars Express Finds Ice and Water

European scientists confirmed that instruments on the Mars Express probe have detected ice and water on the Red Planet, providing further evidence that H2O may have flowed across the planet’s surface in the past.

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An image of the southern polar cap of Mars


Images of Mars’ Reull Vallis show a dramatic canyon that resembles the Grand Canyon. Scientists now believe it was once carved out by a mighty river or a massive glacier. Thanks to new data from the instruments aboard the Mars Express probe released by the European Space Agency on Friday, they have their best evidence yet.

Taken together, the images and data provide compelling evidence that there are ice sheets beneath the Martian crust and that water once flowed across the Red Planet’s surface.

”You look at the picture, look at the fingerprint and say this is water ice,” Mars Express Project Manager Allen Moorehouse said at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. “This is the first time it’s been detected on the ground. This is the first direct confirmation.”

Using a combined camera and infrared spectrometer, Mars Express’ OMEGA instrument began mapping the planet’s south polar cap on Jan. 18. OMEGA has indirectly detected the presence of both water ice and carbon dioxide ice, ESA said.

The discovery clearly pleased scientists at ESA, who suffered a setback in December with the likely destruction of its Beagle 2 lander, which was intended to probe the surface of Mars for organic matter and other signs of life.

”I did not expect to be able to gather together, just one month after the Mars Orbit Insertion of Dec. 25, so many happy scientists eager to present their first results,” said ESA Director of Science David Southwood.

European scientists hope to find large reserves of ice beneath the surface of Mars that can be used to supply water and fuel for future manned space missions.

Water molecules detected

”It’s been looked at for such a long time and it’s been inferred there was water at the south pole,” said Jean-Pierre Bibring an ESA scientist from the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France. Bibring said an infrared camera on board Mars Express had detected vapors of water molecules. “This is the first time we can really see vapors of the molecules themselves,” he said.

Evidence of water has been found by multiple instruments on Mars Express and the satellite has also found evidence that water is being pulled from Mars into space, a theory scientists have long suspected.

In March 2002, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter indirectly detected water ice on the planet’s southern pole using a gamma ray spectrometer that found hydrogen which, when combined with air, creates water. The European mission provides independent confirmation of NASA’s earlier finding. But taken together with other experiments, including high-resolution maps showing what was likely the effects of erosion on the landscape caused by water, ESA has provided the strongest proof yet.

”Previous measurements have been indirect and this is the first time we have direct indications of molecules that are present in water,” Southwood said. “Of course, finding anything that has to do with water on Mars is sort of a holy grail. This is certainly better than anything we’ve had so far.”

Mars -23 January 2004, Oberfläche

This picture was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard ESA's Mars Express orbiter, in colour and 3D, in orbit 18 on 15 January 2004 from a height of 273 km. The location is east of the Hellas basin at 41° South and 101° East. The area is 100 km across, with a resolution of 12 m per pixel, and shows a channel (Reull Vallis) once formed by flowing water. The landscape is seen in a vertical view, North is at the top. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

A flurry of images

On Friday, the agency also released spectacular new images from the German-designed high resolution stereo camera depicting craters created by the impact of meteorites, canyons that appear to have been carved by rivers and volcanoes.

”We have done some instant science and I think we can firmly say ‘yes, there was water acting on the surface of Mars’,” said Gerhard Neukum of Berlin’s Free University, the lead scientist on the camera project. Neukum and his crew have already gathered more than 100 gigabytes of data from the camera. He said he hoped the camera would be able to detect if some of the rocks on Mars are actually blocks of ice.

Mars Express first entered into Martian orbit at Christmas. It will continue delivering data from its scientific instruments for the next two years.

”Europe can be proud of this mission,” said Edelgard Bulmahn, Germany’s Minister for Research and Education. “Mars Express is an enormous success for the European Space Program.” Buhlman said that all seven instruments on board Mars Express were working as planned and without problem.

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  • Date 25.01.2004
  • Author DW staff (dsl)
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4bJm
  • Date 25.01.2004
  • Author DW staff (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4bJm