NASA: Orbiter spots ice in Martian meteor craters

Hunt for elements of life: Ice exposed just feet below surface of Red Planet

A NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has spotted exposed ice in five different spots on the Red Planet.

After years of speculation and last year's intensive hunt for water and other elements that could support life, NASA scientists reported today that they've found frozen water just a few feet below the planet's surface.

"This ice is a relic of a more humid climate from perhaps just several thousand years ago," said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona, Tucson, during a press conference today.

NASA scientists said they found the exposed ice inside craters, caused by meteors slamming into the Red Planet last year. Scientific instruments onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found that the icy craters range from 1 1/2 to 8 feet deep.

The exposed ice first appeared as bright patches and then darkened in a matter of weeks as the ice vaporized in the Martian atmosphere.

"Craters tell us a lot about the object on which they occur," said Ken Edgett, a senior staff scientist at Malin Space Science Systems. "They're great probes of what lies beneath the surface."

In the average week, the orbiter's high-resolution camera captures more than 200 images of Mars, covering an area greater than the size of California. The images are sent back to Earth where scientists pour over them, comparing any new spots, or possible craters, to photos taken earlier.

Because of the area where the ice was discovered, scientists said today that if NASA's Viking Lander 2, which worked on the surface of Mars in 1976, had dug four inches deeper than it had at the time, it would have struck ice.

Before NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander froze to death in the long, cold Martian winter last year, the robotic vehicle dug up and analyzed soil samples and verified the existence of ice on Mars. The found ice proved that water -- a key element to support life -- exists there.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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