NASA waiting on first chemical analysis of Martian soil

Microscopic images of same patch of soil arrived on Earth earlier this week

NASA scientists are eagerly awaiting the first test results to come down from a wet chemistry lab on the Phoenix Mars Lander that yesterday analyzed its first bit of Martian soil.

The imminent arrival of the analysis from the wet chemistry lab comes just days after the microscopic imager on the Mars Lander sent back pictures of the trench, dubbed Wonderland, that contained the tested soil.

Leslie Tamppari, a Phoenix project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said soil from the trench will also be analyzed by one of the lander's eight analysis ovens, which will heat the matter so the gases that are emitted from it can be analyzed. Scientists already have data back from one oven analysis of soil taken from a different area of the planet.

NASA's Phoenix team is excited about getting three different types of analysis -- microscopic images, gas analysis and chemistry analysis -- on soil taken from the same area, Wonderland. "What we'd like to do is use the three different pieces of information from one spot to maximize our knowledge," Tamppari told Computerworld. "A large portion of what we'll learn about this area of Mars really depends on these types of experiments. And the first test in is always exciting."

She added that the results should give scientists clues about the origin and history of Mars and specifically of the northern pole of the planet.

Late last week, NASA scientists found what they had been hoping to discover in this Mars mission: signs of elements that could support life.

Dice-size pieces of whitish matter dug up in a trench on the Martian north pole appear to be ice, according to Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for the Phoenix Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Dug up in a 7- to 8-cm deep trench by the lander's robotic arm, the material disappeared after being exposed to sunlight, leading scientists to believe it was ice that simply melted.

The chunks were left at the bottom of a trench that NASA engineers have dubbed "Dodo-Goldilocks" on June 15, during the 20th Martian day since landing. Several chunks were gone when the Phoenix Lander examined the trench about four days later.

"If they're ice deposits, they should disappear, because water ice is not stable on the surface of Mars at that latitude," said Arvidson. "It disappeared. As soon as the sun hit that material, it disappeared. It's ice. This is why we went, so it's pretty exciting."

Arvidson said the Phoenix Mars Lander lab will continue testing different areas of the planet's northern pole, looking for ice or salt, which would have been left behind if water had evaporated.

"If we find particular salts in the soil and then we find those same salts in the icy soil, that means they were connected," he explained. "Water was able to wick up from the ice into the soil and evaporate. It's evidence of water in the past. The question is whether or not it was liquid. That would make it potentially habitable."

He added that it's possible Mars was once much warmer than it is now. Because of dramatic changes in the planet's spin access, the planet could have warmed and melted the ice into thin films of water in the soil.

The Mars Lander, on a one-way mission, is expected to gather and analyze samples for three months. Scientists are looking for the elements that could support life

"Water is one of the main elements of life," said Matthew Robinson, the robotic arm flight software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a previous interview. "It goes back to the fundamental question of, Are we alone out there? Is there life there, even in a microscopic form? Or is there the possibility that there used to be life? If microscopic life exists elsewhere, other life could exist elsewhere."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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