Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Water puddles on Mars?

Ralph Buttigieg

Ralph Buttigieg

Ralph Buttigieg

Ralph Buttigieg

Sydney, NSW

courtesy Ron Levin

courtesy Ron Levin

courtesy Ron Levin

Regular readers would know of my interest the search for liquid water on Mars. Perhaps its just my desire to find new dive sites. However, two scientists Ron Levin and Daniel Lyddy, think they have found liquid water puddles on Mars. Ron Levin's father is Mars Viking Lander investigator Gilbert Levin of whom Dennis has already written about.

Mars rover finds "puddles" on the planet's surface 15:33 08 June 2007 news service David Chandler

A new analysis of pictures taken by the exploration rover Opportunity reveals what appear to be small ponds of liquid water on the surface of Mars.

The report identifies specific spots that appear to have contained liquid water two years ago, when Opportunity was exploring a crater called Endurance. It is a highly controversial claim, as many scientists believe that liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars today because of the planet’s thin atmosphere.

If confirmed, the existence of such ponds would significantly boost the odds that living organisms could survive on or near the surface of Mars, says physicist Ron Levin, the report's lead author, who works in advanced image processing at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin in Arizona.

Along with fellow Lockheed engineer Daniel Lyddy, Levin used images from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's website. The resulting stereoscopic reconstructions, made from paired images from the Opportunity rover's twin cameras, show bluish features that look perfectly flat. The surfaces are so smooth that the computer could not find any surface details within those areas to match up between the two images.

The imaging shows that the areas occupy the lowest parts of the terrain. They also appear transparent: some features, which Levin says may be submerged rocks or pebbles, can be seen below the plane of the smooth surface.

The smoothness and transparency of the features could suggest either water or very clear ice, Levin says.

"The surface is incredibly smooth, and the edges are in a plane and all at the same altitude," he says. "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."

His report was presented at a conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and will be published later this year in the institute's proceedings.

No signs of liquid water have been observed directly from cameras on the surface before. Reports last year pointed to the existence of gullies on crater walls where water appears to have flowed in the last few years, as shown in images taken from orbit, but those are short-lived flows, which are thought to have frozen over almost immediately.

Levin and other researchers, including JPL's Michael Hecht, have published calculations showing the possibility of "micro-environments" where water could linger, but the idea remains controversial.

“The temperatures get plenty warm enough, but the Mars atmosphere is essentially a vacuum," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, developer of the Mars rovers' mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometers. That means any water or ice exposed on the surface evaporates or sublimes away almost instantly, he says.

But, he adds, "it is theoretically possible to get liquid water within soil, or under other very special conditions". The question is just how special those conditions need to be, and whether they ever really are found on Mars today.

If there were absolutely no wind, says Christensen, you might build up a stagnant layer of vapour above a liquid surface, preventing it from evaporating too fast. “The problem is, there are winds on Mars… In the real world, I think it's virtually impossible," he told New Scientist....

Now all the scientific debate in the world won't settle the matter. Science is based on observation and experimentation not debate or consensus so the researchers have proposed an experiment. Lets hope they get to put it to the test.

Although the rover is now miles away from this site, Levin proposes a simple test that would prove the presence of liquid if similar features are found: use the rover's drill on the surface of the flat area. If it is ice, or any solid material, the drill will leave unmistakable markings, but if it is liquid there should be no trace of the drill's activity.....

Update. No Puddles On Mars. 26/6/2007 Looks like the Martian water puddles I mention turned out to be a false lead. The scientists have withdrawn their paper.