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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    UA Lander extends mission amid new discoveries

    The plot thickens on Mars.

    Last week, NASA announced that the UA-led Phoenix Mars Lander would extend its mission by five weeks. Mission officials also confirmed they had discovered water on Mars.

    The announcement confirmed observations made by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter in 2002, as well as observations made by ‘Phoenix’ cameras.

    Using its Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA), mission scientists identified water in a soil sample delivered to the instrument. TEGA “”bakes”” soil samples and “”sniffs”” any vapors that they might release.

    “”We have water,”” said William Boynton, leader of the TEGA team. “”We’ve seen evidence for this water ice before in observations… but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted.””

    With ‘Phoenix’ continuing to make discoveries on the Red Planet, NASA extended funding for the mission through Sept. 30. The mission was originally scheduled to last 90 days and end in late August.

    The spacecraft is in good health and should be able to continue getting solar power, said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

    “”We want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars,”” he said.

    In other Martian news, mission officials announced in a teleconference Tuesday that the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) had found evidence of perchlorates in the soil. That finding may or may not have an impact on whether or not Mars’ soil is suitable for even primitive life.

    Perchlorates are highly oxidizing substances that are found on earth in places like the Atacama Desert, a hyper-arid landscape, nearly sterile and devoid of plant life.

    The discovery seems to conflict with earlier findings announced by the ‘Phoenix’ team that suggested that the Martian soil was very similar to most soil on Earth and probably hospitable enough to grow asparagus under the right conditions.

    Despite the findings, Peter Smith, the mission’s principal investigator, urged the public not to jump to conclusions.

    “”In itself, this is neither good nor bad for life,”” he said, adding that perchlorates do not rule out the presence of organic compounds.

    In fact, some microbes can actually feed off energy that perchlorates release. In short, perchlorates do not preclude life on Mars,

    he said.

    The ‘Phoenix’ team held the teleconference in response to reports circulating on the internet that the ‘Phoenix’ team had made a major discovery. Smith said that while his team would usually like more time to analyze their results before sharing them with the public, he wanted to “”open a window”” on the scientific process.

    ‘Phoenix’ has therefore found some evidence of perchlorates, Smith said, but mission scientists are still deciding what exactly that means.

    Mission scientists are working to confirm the discovery of perchlorates and will continue to discuss the implications of their findings. While MECA shows evidence of perchlorates, TEGA has yet to find “”solid”” evidence for them. TEGA will focus its next investigation on looking for perchlorates, Boynton said.

    “”We have much more work to do, and you’ll get a final story on this sometime in the future,”” he said.

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