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As interesting as the martian atmosphere is, there's one compound that's p= resence is probably more important than all the others combined: water. Whi= lst some early astronomers convinced themselves they saw vast canal systems= on the martian surface, it wasn't till Mariner 9 reached the red planet in= 1971 that direct evidence of the presence of water was observed - in the f= orm of erosion patterns, weather and vast canyons and floodplains later pho= tographed in more detail by the Viking missions. The importance of confirmi= ng the presence of water on Mars cannot be understated, simply because we b= elieve water to be a pre-requisite for all known life on Earth - so it's pr= esence on a foreign world within our solar system goes a long way towards a= nswering one of mankind's biggest and most enduring questions: are we alone= in the cosmos? The image above shows some convincing evidence for the pres= ence of large amounts of liquid water on the red planet's surface at some p= oint in its history, and until we sent landers and rovers to Mars - this wa= s all the evidence we had. However, since the Viking landers made their way= to Mars' surface in 1970s, we now know there IS water on Mars, but it's us= ually in the form of ice or clouds 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 melting water on Mars can transform straight fro= m a solid into a gas - a process known as sublimation (similar to what dry = ice, frozen carbon dioxide, does 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.