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Lander hints at water, nutrients on Red Planet: Phoenix continues to dig and analyze soil samples.


The first analyses of Martian soil scooped up last month by the robotic arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander support the notion that liquid water has flowed on the Red Planet.

A cubic centimeter of Martian soil--about the volume of a sugar cube--delivered to one of the miniature laboratories on the lander revealed several water-soluble elements and inorganic compounds, including sodium, potassium chloride and magnesium, reported Samuel Kounaves of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Kounaves leads the lander's wet-cell lab experiment, which adds water to samples in order to detect soluble substances.

"We have found what appears to be the requirements - the nutrients - to support life [on Mars], whether in the past, present or future," he said during a telephone press briefing on June 26. The findings, he added, are one more piece of evidence showing the presence of salts created by "some sort of liquid action at some point in the history of Mars."

"We were all flabbergasted by the data we got back," Kounaves said. He noted that the composition of material analyzed by the wet-cell laboratory appears strikingly similar to that of the dry valleys in Antarctica on Earth.

The analysis also revealed that the soil is alkaline, between pH 8 and 9, which surprised some researchers, Kounaves said.

A separate analysis of the first soil sample heated to 1,000[degrees] Celsius in one of Phoenix's tiny ovens--the first time any parcel of a planet other than Earth had been artificially heated to such high temperatures--showed that the grains contain carbon dioxide and water vapor.

"The soil has clearly interacted with water in the past," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson. "We don't know whether that interaction occurred in this area in the northern polar region or might have happened elsewhere and been blown to this area as dust." Boynton leads the team operating the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, a set of eight single-use ovens.

Phoenix's signature robotic arm has been scooping soil for chemical analyses since the craft landed safely in the planet's arctic region on May 25.

In another first, the robotic arm scraped icy soil in the Wonderland area on June 26. The arm flattened the layer where soil meets ice, exposing the icy surface below the soil.

The next step is to scoop ice samples into Phoenix's analytical instruments. Scientists want to find out whether that ice may have been liquid in the past and could have offered a haven for microbial life on the Red Planet.
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Title Annotation:Atom & Cosmos
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 19, 2008
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