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. Sixth International Mars Conference Set To Meet

"It's time for another review," says Arden Albee, a professor of geology and planetary science, emeritus, at Caltech. "Never before have scientists had such a comprehensive record of the processes that operated on the surface of Mars and in its atmosphere."

Pasadena - Jul 16, 2003
Next year, if all goes well, NASA's two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, along with the British rover Beagle 2, will begin streaming back reams of data about the Red Planet, much to the delight of Mars researchers everywhere.

That data won't be available in time for scientists attending the Sixth International Conference on Mars at the California Institute of Technology, July 20-25, but small matter. Data from two earlier orbiter missions, the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), launched in 1996, and the Odyssey, launched in 2001, will give those attending the conference an opportunity to review and debate some of the key questions and controversies that have matured as a result of this flood of information.

"It's time for another review," says Arden Albee, a professor of geology and planetary science, emeritus, at Caltech. "Never before have scientists had such a comprehensive record of the processes that operated on the surface of Mars and in its atmosphere."

The conference will also include a free public event. On Wednesday evening, July 23, the conference will sponsor "A Mars Picture Gallery--Every Picture Tells a Story," from 8 to 10 p.m. in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. Featured will be Michael Malin, principal investigator of MGS's Mars Orbiter Camera, and Philip Christensen, principal investigator of Odyssey's THEMIS camera.

Malin, a 1976 Caltech graduate and an experienced planetary geologist, is currently president and chief scientist of Malin Space Science Systems, which operates the MGS camera. The camera has returned more than 20,000 new images from Mars, showing the planet's enigmatic features in great detail and tracking changes in its atmosphere.

Recently Malin has been able to obtain images at an unprecedented resolution of 1.5 meters per pixel. This past spring, Malin received a Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award for his work.

Christensen, a planetary geologist at Arizona State University, will display recent images and results from the THEMIS (thermal emission imaging system) camera, on the newest mission to Mars.

"THEMIS provides a unique new view of Mars in thermal infrared images that is providing details on the physical properties of its surface, and the processes that have acted over time," says Christensen. "These views provide a broad perspective of Martian processes, and a context from which to understand the history and evolution of the planet."

Both cameras, for example, have observed sites where water--and therefore life--may have existed in ancient times.

The role of water and the possibility of life on Mars will attract much attention at the sixth conference, says Albee, just as it did at the earlier conferences. "Now we can focus questions in three specific areas. The role of water in the climate of early Mars; the current extent and location of water ice; and the tantalizing evidence for the existence of very recent liquid water on its surface."

Investigators using the new data argue that precipitation, either rain or snow, and flowing water eroded the surface of Mars in its first billion years despite the planet's frigid climate, says Albee.

Precise digital topography from MGS's laser altimeter now also makes it possible to analytically compare valley networks on Earth and Mars. "Unlike Earth," he says, "Mars has preserved much of its ancient landscape, which may yield clues to the climatic conditions under which it formed."

Instruments on Odyssey have mapped the presence of water ice in the immediate subsurface of Mars and have shown that it is less abundant toward the equator. Images show the presence of soil flowage and other features found in permafrost regions on Earth.

The discovery of young gullies in photos of Mars has changed the conception that it has been a dry and frigid planet in the recent past, says Albee, noting that new theories abound. One suggests these recent gullies were formed by debris flows that involved liquid water of subsurface origin. Others have proposed flows driven by carbon dioxide, while still others have proposed localized surface heating under certain conditions.

The arguments over water are simply a sample of the many viewpoints that will be argued during the conference, says Albee, including a session on Tuesday afternoon entitled "Future Missions." In all, some 400 scientists from a number of countries are expected to attend.

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