NASA robot sends back evidence it's snowing on Mars

Mars Lander also finds clay and calcium carbonate, more proof of Martian water

Forget trying to find evidence that there used to be water on Mars. Scientists from NASA said today that its instruments on the Red Planet have detected falling snow.

While the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the planet, the Phoenix Mars Lander has been sitting on the northern pole of the planet for several months, testing Martian soil samples for any materials -- including water-ice -- that could support life. A robotic arm on the lander has dug up pieces of ice, and the orbiter has sent back pictures of what look like old fractures in the planet's surface, and trails of waterways.

Scientists today added to that mounting list of scientific Martian discoveries with evidence of falling snow. "Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars," said Jim Whiteway, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied Meteorological Station on Phoenix. "We'll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground."

In a press conference Monday afternoon, NASA officials said that a laser instrument on the lander has been taking readings of the Mars atmosphere and recently detected snow falling from clouds about 2.5 miles above the planet's surface. The snow apparently is evaporating before reaching the ground.

NASA today also noted that recent soil experiments onboard the lander found the presence of calcium carbonate -- a main ingredient in chalk -- and clay. Both are formed with liquid water. Evidence of calcium carbonate comes from two different machines onboard the lander: the wet chemistry set and the analysis ovens.

"We are still collecting data and have lots of analysis ahead, but we are making good progress on the big questions we set out for ourselves," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

This past July, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported today that its scientists had concluded that the Red Planet was once awash in water. Scientists reported finding evidence of a system of river channels that flowed into a crater lake slightly larger than Lake Tahoe in California. The orbiter sent back information showing that water was on Mars as far back as 4.6 billion to 3.8 billion years ago -- a period corresponding to the earliest years of the solar system.

The Phoenix mission, which originally had been scheduled for a three-month run on Mars, is now in its fifth month after NASA gave the go-ahead for a mission extension late in the summer. Since the Phoenix Mars Lander runs on solar energy, which is about to take a dive with the coming onset of winter, scientists are hoping to activate a microphone to record sounds on Mars before power fails.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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