The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

98° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Soil tests in; Mars habitability possible

    The Martian soil uncovered by the ‘Phoenix’ Mars Lander might not be that different from the dirt in your own backyard. In fact, you might even be able to grow asparagus in it, mission officials said.

    The UA-led mission conducted the first ever wet-chemistry experiments done on another planet yesterday. ‘Phoenix’ tested the soil’s chemical properties, like pH and mineral content, by mixing it with water in its onboard labs.

    The first experiment showed that Mars’ soil has some of the basic nutrients needed to support life and is, in some respects, very earth-like, said Sam Kounaves, the mission’s wet-chemistry lead.

    “”Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the amazing thing about Mars is not that it’s an alien world, but that in many aspects, like mineralogy, it’s very much like Earth,”” he said.

    With 80 percent of its first chemical analysis completed, ‘Phoenix’ showed that the soil has a pH between 8 and 9, meaning that it is very basic or alkaline, as opposed to acidic. Scientists also found evidence of salts like magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.

    The presence of such materials shows that the Martian soil is not much different than what you might find on Earth, Kounazes said.

    “”The soil you have there is the type of soil you have in your own backyard,”” he said. “”You might be able to grow asparagus very well.””

    Fruits such as strawberries, which like more acidic soil, would not fare so well on Mars, he added.

    Nothing could grow on the surface of Mars itself, which is freezing cold and bombarded by UV radiation. However, taken outside of the Martian environment, scientists have so far found nothing about the soil that would make it inhospitable for life, Kounazes said.

    “”It seems very friendly,”” he said.

    Other experiments done by ‘Phoenix’ show evidence that the soil has interacted with water in the past. The Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer baked a soil sample to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit that released carbon dioxide and water vapor during the experiment, said William Boynton, co-investigator for the TEGA instrument.

    Mission scientists do not know much beyond the fact that Martian soil and water collided at some point in the past. They are unsure of where the soil came into contact with water, whether it happened in the Martian arctic near the landing site or if it was blown up from another part of the planet as dust.

    They are also unable to determine when in Mars history such an interaction took place. While they might not be able to answer all of those questions, the team will know more after several more weeks of analysis, Boynton said.

    The team’s latest findings are good news in the search for habitable conditions on Mars, the mission’s goal, said mission scientist Michael Hecht.

    “”This is the sort of thing we’re after,”” he said.

    While ‘Phoenix’ itself is not equipped to find actual life, its finding offer clues that there may be primitive organisms underneath the surface of the planet.

    “”There could be microbes living meters and meters underground,”” Kounazes said. “”They would be very happy.””

    Given what scientists have found on Earth, that is very possible, he said.

    “”There are organisms on Earth that live in places that we never expected them to live,”” he said. “”The extreme boundaries (of life) are now very far out there.””

    More to Discover
    Activate Search