Aug. 9th, 2011

Recent high-resolution photography has returned breathtaking new images from the surface of Mars. The level of detail available to areologists has allowed new analysis – analysis that hints promisingly at the presence of liquid water on the surface of the planet. Although optimistic, scientists must show caution when discussing such exciting results; those who have been too quick to leap to dramatic conclusions have all too frequently been required to make embarrassing retractions later. But the stakes are high – if liquid water is indeed present on or near the top layer of Martian soil, this would be the most promising evidence yet that Earth-like microbial life could exist on other planets.

We will therefore take a closer look at these images and the analysis that has been performed upon them. The readers are invited to view these photographs with the eyes of planetary scientists, and to use their own intuition whether the presence of liquid water is indicated.

Consider, for example, this first image, which shows an object protruding from the Martian soil. Shadow analysis reveals it is approximately one meter tall, and mass spectrometry shows it to be largely iron in composition. What this artifact contains is not known, but one thing is certain: this object, jutting from the ground of our dusty next-door neighbor, is a fire hydrant.

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