"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


NASA confirms water on Mars

July 31, 2008
Courtesy NASA
and World Science staff

Tests aboard NASA’s Phoe­nix Mars Lan­der have con­firmed fro­zen wa­ter ex­ists on the Red Plan­et, the agen­cy an­nounced Thurs­day. The lan­der’s robotic arm de­liv­ered the sam­ple Wednes­day to an in­stru­ment that iden­ti­fies va­pors pro­duced by the heat­ing of sam­ples. 

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 ap­prox­i­mate­ true col­or. (Im­age cred­it: NA­SA/JPL-Caltech/U­ni­ver­si­ty Ari­zon­a/­Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty)

“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 and tast­ed.” 

With en­tic­ing re­sults so far and the craft in good shape, NASA officials said, opera­t­ional fund­ing for the mis­sion will be ex­tended through Sept. 30, add­ing five weeks to the 90 days of the ori­gi­nal mis­sion.

“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 about 2 inches (5 cm) deep, re­search­ers said. 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, sci­ent­ists said, let­ting some of the wa­ter in the sam­ple va­por­ize 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 an on­board chem­is­try lab, TEGA, a mi­cro­scope, a con­duc­ti­vity probe and cam­er­as. The sci­ence team is try­ing to de­ter­mine wheth­er the wa­ter ice ev­er thaws enough for life to sur­vive and if the chem­i­cal ma­te­ri­als for life are pre­s­ent. 

The craft also made a full-circle, col­or pan­o­rama of its sur­round­ings. 

“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.

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Laboratory tests aboard NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander have confirmed that water exists on the Red Planet, the agency announced Thursday. 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 and tasted.” 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, researchers said. 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.