Water, Water Everywhere: An Orbiter Finds Evidence That Oceans of Ice Still Cover Mars, Raising the Odds There May Have Been Life on the Red Planet

By Guterl, Fred | Newsweek, June 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

Water, Water Everywhere: An Orbiter Finds Evidence That Oceans of Ice Still Cover Mars, Raising the Odds There May Have Been Life on the Red Planet


Guterl, Fred, Newsweek


Byline: Fred Guterl

Bill Boynton was a young, hotshot scholar of Mars, with his first child on the way, when he got his Big Idea. It was a plan for finding out whether Mars was a barren, dry husk of a planet, or was concealing in its soil what were once vast, possibly life-supporting oceans. Boynton proposed a high-tech version of the diviner's rod; all he had to do was persuade NASA to put his instruments on one of its Mars probes. It finally happened in 1992, when his daughter was in second grade, but after an 11-month flight through the solar system the spaceship blew itself to bits. Boynton got a second chance in 1999, when his daughter was a sophomore in high school, on the Polar Lander. It got all the way to Mars--and crashed. In April 2001 he watched a Delta II rocket carry NASA's Odyssey probe up into the sky with his instruments on board. Mission control soon lost radio contact. "My colleagues had been telling me, 'Why don't you just give up, Bill?' and I was beginning to think they were right," he says. "I didn't breathe for about half an hour."

But Boynton was third-time lucky. The probe continued on to Mars and was beaming data back by March. The divining rod was most definitely pointing to water--gobs of it. "We've found the equivalent of Lake Michigan twice over," he says. Scientists had already seen signs that water long ago sloshed around on the Martian surface--snapshots of gullies and canyons that bear a striking resemblance to water-carved features on Earth. But where had all the water gone? It may have been right there all along, frozen just below the surface. The news, announced in last week's journal Science, came just in time for his daughter's high-school graduation.

The findings put the solar system in a new light. Mars has always been a likely candidate for harboring extraterrestrial life. Now the odds have improved--when it comes to life, the wetter the better. Odyssey has found water not only at the poles but also a good way toward the equator. And even though its scanners penetrate only about a meter below the Martian surface, they've found higher concentrations of water than anybody expected--a half to three quarters of the upper crust of the Martian soil is made of ice. …

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