› Larger image This partial view of a full-circle panorama shows NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander and the polygonal patterning of the ground at the landing area. The image is in approximately true color. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University Arizona/Texas A&M University Full image and caption
NASA Spacecraft Confirms Martian Water, Mission Extended July 31, 2008
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander
have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm
delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies
vapors produced by the heating of samples.
"We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona,
lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA.
"We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the
Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix
last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched
With enticing results so far and the spacecraft in good shape, NASA
also announced operational funding for the mission will extend through
Sept. 30. The original prime mission of three months ends in late August.
The mission extension adds five weeks to the 90 days of the prime mission.
"Phoenix is healthy and the projections for solar power look good, so we
want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most
interesting locations on Mars," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the
Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The soil sample came from a trench approximately 2 inches deep. When the
robotic arm first reached that depth, it hit a hard layer of frozen soil.
Two attempts to deliver samples of icy soil on days when fresh material was
exposed were foiled when the samples became stuck inside the scoop. Most of
the material in Wednesday's sample had been exposed to the air for two days,
letting some of the water in the sample vaporize away and making the soil
easier to handle.
"Mars is giving us some surprises," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter
Smith of the University of Arizona. "We're excited because surprises are where
discoveries come from. One surprise is how the soil is behaving. The ice-rich
layers stick to the scoop when poised in the sun above the deck, different from
what we expected from all the Mars simulation testing we've done. That has
presented challenges for delivering samples, but we're finding ways to work
with it and we're gathering lots of information to help us understand this soil."
Since landing on May 25, Phoenix has been studying soil with a chemistry lab,
TEGA, a microscope, a conductivity probe and cameras. Besides confirming the 2002
finding from orbit of water ice near the surface and deciphering the newly observed
stickiness, the science team is trying to determine whether the water ice ever thaws
enough to be available for biology and if carbon-containing chemicals and other
raw materials for life are present.
The mission is examining the sky as well as the ground. A Canadian instrument
is using a laser beam to study dust and clouds overhead.
"It's a 30-watt light bulb giving us a laser show on Mars," said Victoria Hipkin
of the Canadian Space Agency.
A full-circle, color panorama of Phoenix's surroundings also has been completed
by the spacecraft.
"The details and patterns we see in the ground show an ice-dominated terrain as far
as the eye can see," said Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, lead scientist for
Phoenix's Surface Stereo Imager camera. "They help us plan measurements we're making
within reach of the robotic arm and interpret those measurements on a wider scale."
The Phoenix mission is led by Smith at the University of Arizona with project management
at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and development partnership at
Lockheed Martin in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency;
the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in
Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.