Those who think there may be life on Mars today got a big boost in December with the release of new evidence that water is probably flowing on the planet’s surface right now.

Previously it had been accepted that at one time there were large bodies of water on Mars—even seas, albeit “mil­lions of years ago”—and that large quantities of ice can currently be found at the poles. Now, a new paper published in the journal Science cites pictures taken by the Mars Global Survey before its recent demise. Clearly visible are flowing patterns in two gullies in the equatorial region which seem unlikely to have been caused by anything except flowing water on the surface. Those patterns are new—not present the last time the areas were photographed. Moreo­ver, at the NASA press conference scientists explained that even though dust can produce similar patterns, they be­lieve the shiny white color of these flows cannot be explained by anything except water. Doctor Michael Malin and his colleagues described what they believed were mud flows which would have contained as much water as “several swimming pools” rushing down gullies and burying anything in their path.

Scientists speculate that the flowing surface water, in an environment where the temperatures are far below freez­ing, indicates that there might very well be large aquifers—pools of liquid water—beneath, but close to, the surface. The thinking is that as the water starts to seep out it freezes, but as the ice builds up, the pressure mounts and even­tually a point is reached where the ice dam bursts and a massive explosive rush of liquid results producing something like a flash flood, though a very muddy one.

At least one important implication of the discovery is for eventual manned exploration of the planet. Available sup­plies of water on Mars could be tapped for both human consumption and for fuel, thus making the entire venture more feasible.

Little was said at the press conference about the meaning of the new discovery for life below the Martian surface but clearly the presence of aquifers, along with heat from volcanic sources, could provide the elements to sustain many simple forms of life currently found on Earth. And at this stage no one can rule out the existence, even now, of more complex manifestations—or for that matter, even intelligent forms—of life.

In the long history of Mars it seems likely that there have been many episodes which would confound the conser­vative analysts from the neighboring planet, though the day when attitudes on Earth could do some dramatic chang­ing may be approaching.

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