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Fresh claims about life on Mars

The Mars Global Surveyor captured these images of defrosting sand dunes on Mars.
The Mars Global Surveyor captured these images of defrosting sand dunes on Mars.  

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Hungarian scientists claimed they've found evidence of living organisms on Mars after sifting through 60,000 photographs taken by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor satellite.

Three scientists say the pictures show evidence of thousands of dark dune spots, similar to organisms found near Earth's South Pole, in craters in Mars' snowy southern polar region.

"These spots indicate that on the surface below the ice there are such organisms which, absorbing solar energy, are able to melt the ice and create conditions of life for themselves," biologist and team member Tibor Ganti told Reuters.

But a note posted on the Global Surveyor Web site in June, before the Hungarian findings were reported, cautions against jumping to conclusions about the spots.

"Despite the "sensation" one gets when looking at pictures of spotted, defrosting martian dunes (i.e., the sensation that these images show some form of life, like vegetation, growing on Mars) these features are a normal, common manifestation of the springtime defrosting process on Mars," the message reads.

Hungarians: Organisms are frozen

The Hungarian researcher say that during harsh martian winters, when temperatures plummet to minus 200 degrees Celsius (minus 328 Fahrenheit), these so-called Mars Surface Organisms are protected by a thick blanket of ice which then melts as the planet's early summer temperatures climb to just above zero.

Large grey dark dune spots -- with a diameter ranging from 10 meters (33 ft) to several hundred meters -- are left behind.

The Hungarians claim the spots are dried-out organisms which can reactivate themselves once the colder, icy season sets in again.

Agustin Chicarro, one of the leaders of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express program, which plans to launch a Mars probe in 2003, recently visited Hungary to follow up the team's findings.

"We make proposals (to the ESA) on where and what sort of measurements should be made and when, how and what should be photographed," Ganti said, adding that no final ESA decision had been taken yet on Hungarian participation in the next probe.

Ganti said that if the Hungarian team, also involving biologist Eors Szathmary and astronomer Andras Horvath, was right, this could be the first real proof of life on Mars.

"This would be life. These would be living organisms and this would be the first find of living organisms on another planet," he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

• Mars Global Surveyor
• National Space Science Data Center
• Mars Exploration Homepage
• Mars Meteorite Home Page (JPL)
• Mars: Planet Profile
• The Mars Society

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