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As interesting as the martia= n atmosphere is, there's one compound that's presence is probably more impo= rtant than all the others combined: water. Whilst some early astronomers co= nvinced themselves they saw vast canal systems on the martian surface, it w= asn't till Mariner 9 reached the red planet in 1971 that direct evidence of= the presence of water was observed - in the form of erosion patterns, weat= her and vast canyons and floodplains later photographed in more detail by t= he Viking missions. The importance of confirming the presence of water on M= ars cannot be understated, simply because we believe water to be a pre-requ= isite for all known life on Earth - so it's presence on a foreign world wit= hin our solar system goes a long way towards answering one of mankind's big= gest and most enduring questions: are we alone in the cosmos? The image abo= ve shows some convincing evidence for the presence of large amounts of liqu= id water on the red planet's surface at some point in its history, and unti= l we sent landers and rovers to Mars - this was all the evidence we had. Ho= wever, since the Viking landers made their way to Mars' surface in 1970s, w= e now know there IS water on Mars, but it's usually in the form of ice or c= louds rather than liquid. This is in part due to the frigid temperatures at= the surface and also due to the low pressures, meaning that rather than me= lting water on Mars can transform straight from a solid into a gas - a proc= ess known as sublimation (similar to what dry ice, frozen carbon dioxide, d= oes here on Earth).
Like Earth, mars has two polar ice caps that shrink and grow depending o= n the seasons. This is where the majority of ice on mars is found, but also= there are small amounts in frosts, glaciers and snow storms, all of which = have been witnessed on the martian surface. Stream beds, eroded craters and= minerals directly connected to the existence of liquid water have also bee= n observed that strongly suggest the existence of liquid water on mars, yet= the question remains: is there liquid water on the surface there now? NASA= 's next mars mission, the Curiosity Mars Rover, that is due to land in Augu= st 2012 is set to answer this question as well as to detect the chemical si= gnatures of microbial life on mars.