Friday, August 5, 2011

Water on Mars

Well, it's official, there's water on Mars. For a while now, the Mars Odyssey orbiter has observed signs that there may be water, and the Phoenix lander observed disappearing chunks of what was probably frozen water last month, but this new finding is special. On Wednesday, the Phoenix Mars lander tested a sample of Martian soil in its TEGA (Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer) which identifies chemical vapors from heated objects. This device detected water vapor, finally.
Subsurface ice visible in Phoenix's footsteps, believed to be water ice. It quickly
vanishes after being exposed.

Liquid droplets condensed on Phoenix's landing struts, probably water. 

Maybe because of this, NASA has extended the operational funding of this mission through September 30, adding another 5 weeks onto the 90 day mission. This soil came from a two inch deep trench where the robotic arm hit frozen soil. We have tried to examine this soil twice before, but the attempts failed because it got stuck inside the scoop. This particular sample was exposed to the surface for two days, making it easier to handle because much of the water ice vaporized away. The soil that the Phoenix lander has been trying to study is actually much stickier than any of the simulations done by NASA would suggest, so we've had to be creative when sampling.
The Phoenix lander has made a full circle panoramic picture of the Martian surface.

The fact that there is water on Mars opens up a lot of new and interesting questions. Because of this, it is much more likely that there may have been life in the past, or that there might even be microscopic life there now. The presence of water also would make it easier for humans if we ever were to attempt to terraform Mars.

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