In a controversial conclusion, a scientist working for the European Space Agency (ESA) says that a formation on the surface of Mars is a relatively recent glacier.
The BBC Online features a report today stating that new images from the Mars Express spacecraft suggest the existence of a large active glacier near the Martian equator. Still unconfirmed, the prospective glacier may be a significant source of water on the surface of the arid Red Planet.
"If it was an image of Earth, I would say 'glacier' right away," Gerhard Neukum, chief scientist on the spacecraft's High Resolution Stereo Camera, told BBC News.
While glacial activity on the Martian surface has been spotted before, it has been regarded as the residue of ancient geophysical processes, occurring millions of years in the past. On Mars, scientists generally believe, surface ice cannot last for long before being sublimated into vapor in the thin atmosphere. Thus, some think that recent glaciers are the result of ice pushed up from beneath the surface of the planet. Neukum, who works at the Free University of Berlin, is one of these.
In the case of the prospective "young" glacier, he estimates that water moved up from underground in the last 10 000 to 100 000 years.
"We have not yet been able to see the spectral signature of water. But we will fly over it in the coming months and take measurements. On the glacial ridges we can see white tips, which can only be freshly exposed ice," Neukum told the BBC. "That means it is an active glacier now. This is unique, and there are probably more."
He speculated that the new discovery could be a breakthrough in the hunt for possible life on Mars. The potential glacier, which rests in the planet's Deuteronilus Mensae region, would very likely be a target for future exploration by robotic rovers if proven out. Should microbes exist deep underground on Mars, kept alive by liquid water, they may be able to reach the surface within the ice flow of such recent glaciers.
If so, these images from the Mars Explorer will have provided an invaluable clue as to where to seek them. That would be a fitting holiday present for the administrators of the European space program. The 25th of December will mark the four-year anniversary of their spacecraft's arrival at Earth's closest neighbor.