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Lockheed Martin, Los Alamos played key roles in discovery of ‘vast quantities of water’ on Mars

It is certainly one of the most significant discoveries in the history of planetary exploration. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced May 28 that its 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft has identified vast quantities of subsurface water on Mars. The water exists in the form of "dirty ice," as one JPL senior scientist described it, and if melted would be enough to fill Lake Michigan twice over. The discovery was based largely on observations of the planet’s south polar region. When the northern region’s seasonal cover of frozen carbon dioxide melts, scientists expect Odyssey’s instruments to reveal even more water in that region of the globe.

The discovery was made using Odyssey’s on-board gamma ray spectrometer suite of instruments. A key element of that suite, the mission’s neutron spectrometer, was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver developed and built the Odyssey orbiter and, jointly with the JPL, conducts mission operations.

"We have suspected for some time that Mars once had large amounts of water near the surface," said Jim Garvin, Mars Program Scientist, NASA Headquarters, Washington. "The big questions we are trying to answer are, ‘where did all that water go?’ and ‘what are the implications for life?’ Measuring and mapping the icy soils in the polar regions of Mars as the Odyssey team has done is an important piece of this puzzle, but we need to continue searching, perhaps much deeper underground, for what happened to the rest of the water we think Mars once had."

Several Sandia researchers who have closely followed NASA’s Mars missions expressed delight and excitement at the latest discovery. They offered some perspectives on what the discovery might mean for future Mars exploration.

Len Duda (2542), an official JPL/NASA "Solar System Ambassador" (see story on page 12), says, "I found the announcement very exciting. It means that the probability for some form of life to have existed on Mars in the past has increased and places a new emphasis for the next Mars Rover mission in 2003. Also, this discovery makes a manned Mars mission easier to accomplish — you won’t need to bring all the water you’ll need — and much more interesting for its exploration possibilities."

Ron Lipinski, Roger Lenard, and Steve Wright, colleagues in Advanced Nuclear Concepts Dept. 6424, have thought long and hard about Mars missions and how nuclear power might play a role.

Says Ron: "My congratulations to the Los Alamos science team. The discovery of substantial quantities of water ice in the upper few feet of Martian soil should provide the scientific impetus to galvanize Mars exploration efforts. The likelihood of finding microbial life there is now much higher. This could spur the deployment of Martian rovers with various microsensors and perhaps even a Mars global rover powered by a small reactor. Numerous analyses and experiments have been conducted to indicate that such a pervasive source of water might also be used for base support and manufacture of return propellant for a human expedition, thus reducing the cost of such a venture. Sandia could play a significant part in providing sensors, radiation-hardened electronics, and power to such future missions.

Adds Roger: "The presence of such water deposits has re-energized the debate over Viking lander biochemistry experiment results [from 1976] — only expeditions with much more capable sensors and chemical processing suites can resolve the existing issues. Further, greatly enhanced surface mobility is going to be necessary."

Steve brings the issue closer to home, noting that Sandia’s expertise in nuclear energy systems might be a critical component of future missions. He says, "Substantial amounts of power are going to be required to process the water for use on Mars, regardless whether it is to be used for the production of oxygen to support human life, production of propellant for the return trip home or for use in mobile vehicles, or for the generation of hydrogen and oxygen in fuel cells. We believe that this finding will increase the growing need for the development of small nuclear power systems on the surface of Mars for the production of power to process water for a variety of uses."

JPL manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington. In addition to Los Alamos and Lockheed Martin, other key mission collaborators include: Arizona State University, the University of Arizona,

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (which provided the high-energy neutron detector).