Images relayed by a European space probe reveal the existence of a sea of ice close to the equator of Mars (search), scientists said Tuesday at a conference in the Netherlands (search). The existence of water or ice would significantly increase the chance that microscopic life may also be found on Mars.

The evidence comes from photographs — not yet published — taken last year by the European Space Agency's (search) Mars Express probe currently orbiting the red planet.

Scientists have long theorized there once was water on Mars, and data from NASA's Mars Rovers has recently appeared to confirm it. But most scientists believed the water had evaporated into the atmosphere early in the planet's history.

"The point is that the ice is very recent: It appears to still be there, covered beneath a layer of dust and ash," John Murray of Britain's Open University told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Photographs from the Mars Express showing what ESA scientists said was the most direct evidence yet of water in the form of ice on the Red Planet have been sent back and analyzed over the past few months.

Murray co-authored a paper detailing the findings which was to be published in the March 17 issue of Nature.

"You can see pack ice in formations that are remarkably similar, identical to ice floes in Antarctica," he said.

Murray said the ice was believed to have formed five million years ago — the blink of an eye, in geological terms — atop a body of water the size of Earth's North Sea.

The water is believed to have originated beneath the surface of Mars, near a series of fractures known as the Cerberus Fossae, where it gushed forth in a catastrophic flood after being warmed by the planet's core.

It collected in a vast area more than 500 miles long and wide, and 50 yards deep.

"If there were warm, wet places, then life could have developed," Murray said.

"That's the place we should look."

The findings were discussed at a major conference in Noordwijk which concludes Friday.