The question was: where did it go? The new data suggest that the water drained towards the poles until it was trapped as ice beneath a protective layer of soil.

The significance of these findings cannot be exaggerated. Ice deposits on Mars lend some evidence to the hypothesis that the planet was once both wet and warm – the two basic conditions for supporting life. As scientists acknowledge, there can be no ruling out that some form of life, probably only in some primitive microbial form, survives even today.

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In 1996, the arresting possibility that there was life beyond Earth seemed as if it had been confirmed after NASA scientists claimed the existence of fossil bacteria in a meteorite that originated from the planet.

However, doubts that the structures on the rock were caused by chemical processes or by terrestrial contamination persisted which have led to a general consensus that the fossil find was inconclusive.

Nevertheless, we now know that microbial life can survive in places once regarded as totally inhospitable – for example, in a thermal spring or within a bed of ice in either of the Earth’s poles.

By implication, such knowledge has increased the belief in the possibility that there may have been, and may even be, life on Mars. One result of this, of course, has been a virtual rush for the Red Planet.