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For most people, Mars conjures images of a cold, dead place with a dusty surface the color of paprika. But new photosrecently analyzed by Brown faculty and other researchers around the worldsuggest that Mars is more lively than suspected.

The findings are stirring an old debate: Did life evolve on Mars, and, if so, is it flourishing today? Pictures taken by the Mars Express spacecraft found evidence of glacial movement and volcanic eruption in the last few million yearsjust yesterday in the planets 4.5 billion-year history. Mars is dynamic, said James Head 69 PhD, a geology professor at Brown and a researcher on the mission. Climate change and geological processes that cause evolution on Earth are actively occurring on Mars.

Head and John Mustard 90 PhD, an associate professor of geology, are part of an international team studying data from the unmanned orbiter launched in 2003 by the European Space Agency.

Head analyzed 3-D images from the craft, and Mustard observed the planets rocks, ice, and dust. Their re-search appeared in the journals Nature and Science, respectively.

Most scientists agree that Mars was wet and warm in its early days and that the water evaporated into the thin Martian atmosphere. Cold and bombarded by radiation, the planet could never sustain life as we know it. But some scientists wonder whether watera key ingredient for liferemains beneath the surface.

One of the most striking photos Head studied shows a huge glacier near the planets equator. Does it still contain ice? Or is liquid water trapped beneath the glacier, where primitive microbes might thrive?

Other photos suggest that volcanoes may have erupted as recently as two million years ago. Researchers speculate that the heat from volcanic activity created a warm bath under the surface, making it hospitable to microorganisms.

Scientists also found traces of methane in the planets atmosphere, indicating either the presence of bacteria or simply a geothermal chemical reaction.

Using the orbiters infrared camera, or spectrometer, Mustard discovered minerals that had formed in water over long stretches of time, suggesting to the researchers that the conditions for life on Mars were present.

Mars Express will get back to work in May when it switches on a ground-penetrating radar instrument that should be able to detect water and ice several miles down. The results could be tantalizing. Anything from a complete, eye-opener, Wow! says Mustard, to That was pretty dull. Thats the beauty of exploration, he says. You dont really know whats going to happen.

Elizabeth Rau is a Providence-based freelance writer.

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