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Life on Mars?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- NASA's next trip to mars is planned for 2011. It will be unmanned. Before the first man steps foot on the planet 35 million miles away there is a lot to learn.

Planetarium director Matthew Linke has spent the last 30 years teaching kids about mars. Now he wants to put you to the test. First question? What color is mars?

"The oxidized color of the surface makes what we call the red planet look really like butterscotch," Linke told Ivanhoe.

Mars is half the size of earth and has a canyon on it that is as big as what?

"A, the Grand Canyon, B, the state of Texas, or C, the distance between New York and San Francisco?" Linke asked his class.

The canyon on mars stretches 2,500 miles -- about the length of New York to San Francisco. As Linke teaches what he knows at the University of Michigan, atmospheric scientists are learning new facts. Nilton Renno, Ph.D., an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., is the first to discover lightning on mars.

"Lightning on Mars is so powerful," Dr. Renno said. "It's like the whole planet rings."

Dr. Renno found that dust storms on mars, like here on earth, build up an electric field, causing the massive jolts of lightning on the planet -- something that could affect space travel in the future.

"I predict this is going to be one of the major problems," Dr. Renno said.

Dr. Renno's latest discovery … water on mars! When the Phoenix Spacecraft landed, ice and water droplets were found.

"One of the landing struts, there's lots of mud splashed during the landing," Dr. Renno explained.

Dr. Renno found the water to be full of salt, comparable to the Dead Sea here on earth.

"The really important thing on Earth, we found bacteria that thrive in those conditions, so it means life could be thriving on Mars," Dr. Renno said.

As we discover more about the "butterscotch" planet, here's another question to test your space smarts: what or who is mars named after? The answer: the God of War.

Proving as much as we think we now know about mars, it's just the beginning.

Here's another cold hard fact about mars: in the winter, mars can get as cold as 191 degrees below zero. In the summer, the temperature on mars only reaches about 24 degrees below zero.

The American Astronomical Society, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Geophysical Union contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Nilton O. Renno
Atmospheric scientist
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
(734) 936-0488

Steve Maran
American Astronomical Society
Washington, DC 20009-1231
(202) 328-2010

American Meteorological Society
Boston, MA 02108-3693
(617) 227-2425

Peter Weiss
American Geophysical Union
Washington, DC 20009-1277
(800) 966-2481

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