The ice and minerals found using a robotic arm in the Martian soil could make it easier for humans to live on the planet in the not-so-distant future.
The ice on the northern pole of Mars has been a particularly important find for NASA scientists because robots and astronauts could extract usable, even drinkable, water from it, helping to sustain an extended stay on the Red Planet, according to Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for the Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
"I think the fact that we found water ice means there's a large reservoir of it," Arvidson told Computerworld on Friday. "Water is crucial to us as humans, in terms of keeping us going. Water also is a resource that can be processed, in terms of getting oxygen and hydrogen. Finding that water near the surface is important. When you actually go to Mars, you don't want to take that water with you … the fact that the water is close to the surface is good."
On Thursday, NASA scientists announced that their initial analysis found that Martian soil could support life.
Scientists on Wednesday received the first test results from the wet chemistry laboratory on the Mars Lander, which is using a robotic arm to dig shallow trenches and then scoop up and analyze soil samples on the northern pole of the planet. Earlier this week, the microscopic imager on the Mars Lander sent back pictures of the trench, dubbed Wonderland, that contained the tested soil.
"We were all very flabbergasted at the data we got back [from the wet chemistry tests]," said Samuel Kounaves, a professor at Tufts University and a research affiliate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We basically have found what appears to be the requirements to support life, whether in the past, present or future. We have elements that you might find in your backyard."
Kounaves said though the findings are preliminary, they've found the minerals that are essential to life in the Martian soil. The dirt there is very alkaline, with a pH level of between eight and nine. They've also found magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. The minerals in the Martian soil are typical of soils here on Earth.
"Some kinds of Earth life would be happy to live in these soils," he added. "Asparagus, green beans and turnips love alkaline soils."
That will be a plus for astronauts who might set up human habitat on Mars someday. In 2004, President George Bush called on NASA to send humans back to the moon by 2020 in preparation for a manned-mission to Mars some day.
Arvidson said to make that happen, NASA will need sophisticated robots to be sent to Mars first to build the infrastructure of the habitat and extract usable water from the ice there. And the robots would also be needed to pull gases from the atmosphere that could be used to create rocket fuel for the astronauts' trip home.
"Once on the surface, you're there for a long time before the orbital dynamics are such that you can return to Earth. You have to be self-sustaining," said Arvidson. "Before people go there, which might be in a few decades, there might be a robotic outpost that would set up the infrastructure for the site. One of the reasons for going back to the moon is to learn how to use robotics and humans together to build outposts and [for] resource utilization."
He added that NASA already has robots that are sophisticated enough to erect buildings and extract water and gases. The issue now is making them strong enough to survive the trip there.
"The problem is that going from the laboratory to flight is a very difficult undertaking," he noted. "The systems have to survive the launch. They're pulling Gs and vibrating. They have to survive transit through space for six months and then a landing. And then they have to survive on Mars for a year. We have to make sure they don't vibrate apart and can work under very cold conditions and work in the presence of dust and low pressures. Those are very harsh conditions. Going from lab to flight requires a whole lot more development."
And that development, he noted, is being slowed by the fact that NASA's robotics budget has been hit in recent budget cuts.
This weekend, the Mars team is waiting for results to come down from one of the Lander's eight ovens, which heats the soil to about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit so the gases that are emitted from it can be analyzed. The oven is testing soil from the same area that the Lander's robotic arm dug up soil to be tested in the wet chemistry set and the microscopic imager earlier this week.
And they're also waiting for further analysis from the wet chemistry laboratory about the presence of sulfate in the Martian soil.