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Double celebration for Mars scientists.

Byline: Geoff Johnson

There were double celebrations for the Mars scientists yesterday. Europeans found water on the red planet leading to the possibility that it once sustained life.

That announcement did not impress US space agency scientists, who said they had made the same discovery years ago.

Meanwhile, Nasa finally heard from its rover which had been sitting in silence on Mars since Wednesday, raising fears that contact was lost for ever.

The European Space Agency said its Mars orbiter has found the most direct evidence yet of water in the form of ice.

While scientists have long believed that the planet's polar caps contain frozen water, the findings were based on indirect methods such as analysis of temperature data or the detection of hydrogen traces.

European scientists said they analysed vapours of water molecules themselves, using an infrared camera on board the Mars Express orbiter circling over the planet's south pole.

"You look at the picture, look at the fingerprint and say this is water ice," said agency scientist Allen Moorehouse. "This is the first direct confirmation."

Nasa's Mars Odyssey, which has orbited the planet for two years, has turned up evidence of lots of ice mixed with the soil, as little as 18in from the surface.

However, ESA's science director David Southwood said previous conclusions were based on indirect data and that the European finding was more concrete.

"Previous measurements have been indirect and this is the first time we have direct indications of molecules that are present in water," Southwood said.

"Of course finding anything that has to do with water on Mars is a sort of holy grail. This is certainly better than anything we've had so far."

If Mars once had surface water, it had the potential to support life - though Moorehouse, the European project's manager of spacecraft operations, cautioned it was too early to draw conclusions.

The director of the US space agency's Mars exploration programme disputed the Europeans' claim that their discovery was new.

"Our Odyssey spacecraft that has been orbiting Mars since 2001 did discover vast amounts of frozen water in the northern and southern latitudes. And we were surprised by the fact that there was so much, and so close to the surface," said Orlando Figueroa.

"So it's not new news but we are happy to see that their satellite is also able to pick up where it exists."

Phil Christensen, an Arizona State University professor involved in Nasa's Mars projects, said the findings bolstered known data that pointed to the presence of frozen water on Mars.

"That is a very nice confirmation of the other measurements that have been previously made," he said.

The Mars Express orbiter is part of Europe's first mission to Mars. It went into orbit on Christmas Day and began transmitting its first data from the planet this month, starting with high-resolution pictures of the surface that captured in detail a huge Martian canyon.

Nasa ran into trouble with contacting its Spirit rover this week, but engineers received a 10-minute signal yesterday and planned further communications with it in an effort to diagnose and possibly patch up their ailing robotic patients on Mars.

Nasa officials did not immediately elaborate on the signal. If it contains significant data, the transmission would mark the first such signal in two days - a period of anxious waiting for scientists.

Engineers hoped that Spirit would send technical data that could be used to assess the health of the spacecraft, pinpoint any problems and allow Nasa to begin working on a potential fix.

More than 40 years of Mars exploration have yielded inconclusive evidence of whether the planet ever had liquid water.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 24, 2004
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