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Images Stir Life on Mars Debate
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 07:00 am ET
09 July 2001

WASHINGTON -- Mars has turned into a red planet Rorschach test. Depending on who is doing the looking, pictures snapped by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) clearly show a world of big time biota, from fields of vegetation and towering Banyan trees, to blotches of bacteria and even a giant circuit board.

Forget the crumbling Face on Mars. That edifice has been found by MGS to be native geology rather than carved by natives.

But day after day, as MGS plods along on its scientific tour-of-duty, Mars does not shirk from its claim of being one weird world.
   Images

Odd looking structures on Mars look like Banyan trees explains noted writer, Arthur Clarke.

The most beautiful examples of dark dune spots (DDSs) occur in the southern polar region (-55

A picture from a latest MOC image at the end of the third winter (Ls=174), on the dune hill of a 20 km diameter phantom crater. It shows very clearly that dark dune spots (DDS) DO NOT first appear on ridges most exposed to sunlight.
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It doesn't matter whether Mars snapshots are examined by do-it-yourself interpreters or scrutinized by veteran planetary geologists.

There is no doubt that there are strange doings on the red planet.

Rife with life

Joining the ranks of those who think the MGS images may depict a Mars rife with life is none other than prescient space writer, Sir Arthur Clarke.

Clarke repeatedly has espoused his belief that something on the red planet is changing with the seasons. Some of the Mars images can only be reasonably interpreted in terms of vegetation, he said.

In a recent email, Clarke told SPACE.com that "extraordinary features" are evident in select MGS photos, "which I just can't explain."


The Red Planet

"I'm quite serious when I say have a really good look at these new Mars images," he told an audience last month gathered at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Talking via phone from his residence in Sri Lanka, Clarke said signs of vegetation seem apparent. One image showed what appeared to him looking like Banyan trees, he said.

Clarke added a bit of humor, too. He's decided that Mars must be inhabited "by a race of demented landscape gardeners."

Resolution of the matter

One scientific team is steadfast in their belief that life on Mars is within reason and within the MGS photos.

Astronomer, Andras Horvath, head of the Budapest Planetarium in Hungary, was early in spotting "dark dune spots" in MGS photos. He and other researchers, including a theoretical biologist, as well as an evolutionary biologist, have peered over countless MGS images.

The team argues that they see probable evidence of recent biological activity on Mars in MGS pictures, contrasting a variety of shots taken from 1998 into 2001. Focus of their attention has largely been in the south polar region of Mars, studying images that span late winter to early spring in the planet's southern hemisphere.


The Mars "face" has devolved over the years since it was first photographed

Nearly circular dark dune splotches can be identified in images. They vary in size, up to roughly 700 feet (a few hundred meters) in diameter. In springtime, circular spots can become elongated. The highest resolution snapshots show the spots sporting inner ring structure, the team reports.

"We have detected candidate biogenic dark dune spots in 50 craters, on 150 Mars Orbiter Camera images," said Eors Szathmary, an evolutionary biologist at the Institute for Advanced Study and professor of biology at Eotvos University, both in Budapest, Hungary.

Next page: Looking for "bizarre geology"

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