The Snows of Mars

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Язык: английский

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Mars holds a special place in the human imagination as the planet most like the Earth. It has an atmosphere, seasons, and distinctive polar ice caps. The ice caps, first observed by Giovanni Cassini in 1666, immediately raised tantalizing questions. Are they made of water ice like the giant glaciers that smother Antarctica? Are they the frozen remains of long-vanished oceans? If they melted, could Mars become a habitable place? NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, currently in orbit about the Red Planet, is finally providing some solid answers.

The Surveyor has already revealed unexpected details about the size and structure of Mars’s northern cap. By the end of February, the spacecraft will begin mapping, for the first time, the topography and composition of the even more poorly understood southern polar ice cap. The new information (along with upcoming data from the Mars Polar Lander, which will arrive in December) will strip away many of the lingering mysteries of the Martian poles.

On Mars, the presence of water—essential for life, past or present—is always an issue of great interest. «Some people have proposed that there were oceans early in Martian history; others have said there were not. «But for all of those theories, one needs to understand the water cycle: how much water there was, where it went to, and where it’s at now.» If scientists find substantial reserves of frozen water, it would bolster the view that Mars was once a balmy, moist world where life could have started.