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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Mars ice could flood planet
The blue areas show ice on Mars
The ice is coloured blue at the bottom of the image

Scientists have revealed the full technical details of their discovery of vast reservoirs of ice beneath the Martian surface.

So much ice has been found in the polar regions that if it were to melt it would deluge the planet.

The ice may stretch far underground to regions where it is warm, raising the possibility of warm caverns of meltwater in which scientists hesitantly speculate conditions could be suitable for life.

But they caution that we may never know until we have rock and ice samples returned to Earth by an unmanned probe for analysis.

Third time lucky

William Boynton, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute of the University of Arizona, US, is lead author on one of a trio of pioneering Mars papers published in this week's issue of Science magazine.

We saw ice where we had expected to. The signal was so strong it just knocked us over

Dr William Boynton
He regards the sensational findings of ice below the surface of Mars as third time lucky.

"Twice I was close to this," he told BBC News Online. "We detected the subsurface ice using an instrument on Mars Odyssey that was also on the Mars Observer spacecraft.

"That probe reached Mars 10 years ago, but blew up when it got there - so, we could have found [the ice] then."

Quick start

And Dr Boynton could also have found it with the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander spacecraft. It crashed into the planet's polar regions in 1999.

"It would have landed on precisely the place where we now see the ice. Polar Lander had a scoop that would have been able to dig and reach the ice so just think what we could have seen if that mission had been a success."

Fortunately, Mars Odyssey has been a resounding success.

"We started seeing the signal from the ice within a few days of starting our survey of the planet," he said.

"We saw ice where we had expected to. The signal was so strong it just knocked us over."

Lost oceans

The Gamma-Ray Spectrometer, one of several sensors on board Mars Odyssey able to find evidence of ice reserves, is only able to look about a metre (three feet) beneath the surface.

Mars water facts
Ice crystals less than one metre (three feet) below Mars surface
Located south of 60 degrees latitude
Melted, would create substantial planet-wide ocean
Nasa may commit to landing in less than 20 years
"We can see an awful lot of water there," said Dr Boynton, "but why should it stop there? It may go down 10 metres, a 100 metres or even kilometres."

The underground ice solves one of the deepest and longstanding mysteries about the Red Planet: where did the water go?

All over its surface there is evidence that in the distant past copious amounts of water flowed. We can see dried up river lakes, ancient shorelines, and vast, empty canyons.

Now, scientists know where all this water has gone - it is frozen deep underground.

"This is where the lost oceans have gone," Dr Boynton told BBC News Online.

It has been found exactly where it was predicted - Poleward of 60 degrees south, where the average temperature and soil properties would allow ice to form.

Possibility for life

If Mars were to become much warmer for some reason and the ice melted, it would drench the planet. But what of life?

William Boynton
Boynton: Impressed with results
"Well, it's a little hard to say," speculated Dr Boynton. "If the ice is deep enough, there could be regions where it gets warm enough to melt and that would mean pockets of warm water underground.

"That would be very exciting - but we will not know for sure until we bring back a sample for analysis."

And the Mars Odyssey data has provided another ironic twist in the history of exploring the Red Planet.

In 1976, two sophisticated American spacecraft, Vikings 1 and 2, landed on the planet. They scooped up some soil and looked for life. Most scientists believe they found none. But Viking 2 may have come close.

"Our findings indicate that perhaps just a metre below Viking 2, there may have been a lot of ice. It may have got so far yet so close to finding ice on Mars," said Dr Boynton.

And the scientist who endured two failed missions and 17 years to solve one of the greatest planetary mysteries chuckles to himself.


Mars Odyssey

Future frontiers

Past failures

Talking Point

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See also:

04 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
22 May 02 | Science/Nature
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