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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    ‘Phoenix’ team determining habitability of Mars ice

    After weeks of speculation, the UA-led Phoenix Lander sent back data last week confirming that it had found ice from water on Mars, a huge milestone for the project.

    During a June 20 teleconference with reporters, Peter Smith, the mission’s principal investigator, announced that images received from ‘Phoenix’ had confirmed that it had unearthed ice just below the Martian surface. ‘Phoenix’ was sent to Mars’ arctic regions to investigate sub-surface ice that the Mars Odyssey Orbiter discovered in 2002.

    “”We found what we’re looking for,”” said mission scientist Mark Lemmon.

    ‘Phoenix’ will begin to examine the ice to see if it could provide a habitat for Martian life. Scientists will look for organic materials and energy sources that could combine with water to make what scientists call a “”habitable zone.”” Future missions will actually search for Martian organisms, Smith said.

    ‘Phoenix’ is not equipped to detect life on Mars, but it is looking for the conditions that would allow life to exist, even in its most primitive form, he added.

    Mission scientists had been tantalized by visual clues that they had found ice for weeks. Images taken from underneath the lander showed an exposed shiny white surface, but that was out of reach of the craft’s robotic arm, Smith said.

    ‘Phoenix’ later unearthed more bright chunks of material in a trench that it was digging. Mission scientists thought that it might be ice. The team was hesitant to make a final call at first, thinking it might also be some kind of salt. When some of those bright chunks disappeared, though, they knew it was most likely ice.

    The ice sublimated in the cold, dry Martian atmosphere, which means that it vaporized in the extreme conditions after it was exposed, Lemmon said.

    “”Salt does not behave like this,”” he said. “”This tells us that we have water-ice in reach of the arm, which means we can continue this investigation with the tools we brought with us.””

    ‘Phoenix’ won’t be returning instant results. It hasn’t even sampled the ice yet. Mission scientists still have to test a series of instrument sequences on Earth before they are used on Mars to deliver ice to the lander’s instruments, Smith said.

    “”We really feel we need a slow delivery process to make sure that when we go for the pay dirt, that icy soil at the bottom of the trench, we’re really prepared to do it properly,”” Smith said.

    Instrument sequences are tested at the mission’s Science Operations Center in Tucson, where a full-scale working model of ‘Phoenix’ practices maneuvers before they are attempted on the planet.

    In the meantime, Smith counseled patience.

    “”I really encourage people around the world to stay with it, because it’s going to take us a few weeks to start answering those big questions,”” he said.

    Smith said that he’d been asked for years what he would do if ‘Phoenix’ landed on Mars and didn’t find ice. He said that he always had good answers to that question, but hoped in his heart that he would never have to use them. Now, it looks like he won’t have to.

    “”We know for sure that we’re on an icy surface and we can really meet the science goals of our mission at the highest levels,”” he said. “”I’m just sitting on the edge of my chair waiting for the results.””

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