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Frozen sea on Mars hints at alien life

Pack-ice in pictures

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Mars Express, the European Space Agency's Mars orbiter, has sent back images of a frozen sea just below the surface of Mars. Three dimensional images of pack ice were captured by the orbiter's high resolution camera, and provides the first evidence that there was still liquid water on Mars relatively recently, according to the teams who made the discovery.

Pack ice on Mars. image credit ESA

Jan-Peter Muller, professor of geomatic engineering at UCL, commented: "This is a historic moment for Mars exploration when a previously neglected region reveals its secrets. Speculation that this area might have water close to the surface have been shown to be correct."

The area, near the Martian equator, has also been shown to have higher-than-normal levels of methane in the atmosphere, hinting that primitive micro-organisms could survive on Mars, according to Dr. John Murray, from the department of Earth Science at the Open University. He says that the mission has changed many of his long-held opinions about Mars, and called for a mission to go and "check it out".

The sea would have formed at around the same time as early hominids were evolving from apes. The researchers think the water welled up from beneath the planet's surface about five million years ago. The water would have covered an area about 800 by 900km, and was 45m deep, on average. Pack ice formed on the surface and drifted in floes until the water levels dropped and it lodged on higher ground. A layer of volcanic ash and dust seems to have protected the ice from subliming away, the researcher said.

When the ESA's ground-penetrating radar experiment, MARSIS, begins in May, the researchers will find out once and for all if there is water at the site. If water is confirmed, the site will be a prime candidate for ESA's mission to look for life on the Red Planet, planned for the end of this decade. ®

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