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Can people live on Mars?

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - The discovery of ice immediately under the surface of Mars is increasing the chances of finding life there.

Water is more than the key to the origin of life. Water on Mars raises intriguing questions. Can people build settlements on Mars? Is it suitable for colonization? Can we learn more about our planet by studying the Martian climate? Did Mars go through the same geological processes as Earth? Water plays a major role in answering these questions, or, to be more precise, the possibility of a water cycle on Mars.

The first photos obtained from the Martian orbit registered gullies and canyons, which could have been formed several million years ago by the displacement of large water masses. Scientists believe that Mars may hold enormous reserves of ice and whole seas of water. Several years ago, they developed a new strategy of Martian research, which was called "Following the Water."

Gamma-ray and neutron spectroscopy is the most effective way of finding water on Mars. This planet has a very "fine" atmosphere without a strong magnetic field, making it easy for space rays to reach its surface. At a depth of one meter to three meters, they generate fast neutrons. The nucleuses of the ground's chemical elements react with them and generate gamma radiation. Since each nucleus has a unique spectrum of radiation, it is possible to establish the relative number of nucleuses for this or other elements in the Martian ground. This also applies to hydrogen, which is water's primary component. Correlation of radiation streams indicates the presence of ice or water in the study area.

In order to study the composition of the Martian ground and find ice, scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research developed a high energy neutron detector (HEND) at the direction of Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency). It has been operating onboard the American Mars Odyssey spacecraft in a near-Martian orbit for more than seven years now. It has detected huge water reserves immediately under the planet's surface and registered the dynamics of seasonal carbon dioxide deposits on its surface.

The Americans launched the Phoenix Mars Lander late last May. The first results of its operation confirmed the information obtained by the Russian HEND. The Lander's robotic arm scraped the hard crust of the surface and found a white substance which was very similar to ice. It disappeared several days after direct contact with the Martian atmosphere. Apparently, at the altitude of Phoenix's landing, frozen water turns into steam bypassing the liquid stage.

Moreover, the chemical analysis of the samples of the Martian ground, performed by the onboard laboratory of the spacecraft, showed that they contain all elements required for the origin and maintenance of life.

In 2009, NASA is planning to deliver to the planet the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a NASA rover which will carry the Russian Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, or DAN. The HEND only registered the neutrons which naturally emerged on the Martian surface under the impact of space rays, whereas the rover, DAN, will carry an active source of neutrons. Their impulses will penetrate the Martian surface to a depth of 1.5-2 meters. The impulses will scatter and then surface in a matter of micro seconds. The Russian detector will register this albedo of neutrons and determine the presence of water on the surface.

The HEND was searching for water on Mars over thousands of square kilometers, whereas DAN will conduct research in local spots with a resolution of about one meter. It will register the flow of neutrons from the substance which will be under the rover's wheels. This analysis will have to be done in real time, because the information obtained one day will be very important for planning the rover's route for the next day. In other words, if the device detects an area with an increased water concentration but scientists learn about it too late, the rover may not be able to return to this area.

DAN is an entirely Russian designed device and amounts to 10% of the rover's useful load of 50 kg. Russia is a full-fledged participant in the MSL project, although the DAN experiment is considered Russian-American. Information obtained by all instruments on the rover will be accessible to Russian scientists.

Doctor of Physics and Mathematics Igor Mitrofanov, who heads a laboratory at the Institute of Space Research, said: "A united team is required to control the rover's movements on Mars. On an orbital space station, researchers process information received only from their own instruments. This principle does not work on Mars."

Yury Zaitsev is an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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