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Puddles on Mars, aerospace boffin claims

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Pictures taken two years ago by Mars rover Opportunity might show puddles of liquid water on the Martian surface, according to New Scientist.

The possibility was raised in a report, not yet seen by El Reg, detailing a fresh analysis of the images. Along with Michael Hecht from NASA's Jet Propopulsion Laboratory, Ron Levin, a physicist who works in advanced image processing at Lockheed Martin in Arizona, proposes that micro-environments might exist on the Martian surface that would allow water to remain liquid.

This is a bold claim. The Martian atmosphere is not much more substantial than a hard vacuum. In such an environment, liquid water would evaporate or sublime away. But Levin and his colleagues are convinced that friendlier places might exist on the red planet.

Levin told New Scientist that he thought safe zones could exist inside natural depressions, such as a crater. During Martian summer with the sun at its zenith, the temperature could sustain liquid water, and he argues that briny water would be even more robust.

While it was exploring the Endurance crater, a region that would meet Levin's hypothetical safe zone criteria, Opportunity sent back pictures of what look like puddles.

"The surface is incredibly smooth, and the edges are in a plane and all at the same altitude. If they were ice or some other material, they'd show wear and tear over the surface, there would be rubble or sand or something," Levin said, describing the images.

Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, developer of the Mars rovers' mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometers, told the publication that although very specific conditions could allow for it, he thought it unlikely that liquid water would exist on the surface.

The ideal conditions would be if there were absolutely no wind. This might allow a layer of vapour to build above the puddles, stopping them from subliming or evaporating too quickly, he said.

"The problem is, there are winds on Mars… In the real world, I think it's virtually impossible."

Levin is undaunted. He says a simple drill test would settle the question one way or another.

New Scientist has pictures here. ®

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