Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mars Chem Lab: First Report

The Mars Phoenix lander has finished its first "wet chemistry" experiment and has turned in part one of its "lab report." It seems that the pH level and mineral content of this regolith sample are similar to some soils found on Earth - not extreme in any way. Probably compatible with life, though that is not to say that there is or has been life, just that Earth soil with these chemical properties would be able to sustain a lot of living things - from bacteria to certain vegetables.

There is also water there (sublimating ice crystals have been seen in the trenches dug by the Phoenix robot arm), so you can imagine future Mars explorers growing their asparagus in greenhouses using Mars "soil" and Mars water! The image shows a greenhouse on Mars sometime in the future (courtesy NASA).

As usual, Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Weblog has all the dirt on the Martian dirt. Check out her extensive sol 30 update here.


John Umana said...

Impressive achievement for the Phoenix Mission. But don’t break out the champagne just yet. The Phoenix Lander last week conducted its first wet chemical analysis through its Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA), which mixes the soil sample with water and bakes the mud to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit to test for chemical composition. The results show the martian soil had a pH between 8 and 9, meaning it is alkaline — the kind of soil you could grow vegetables in if you brought it back to Earth, tossed in some cow manure, and watered regularly. MECA detected the presence of magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride but no organic carbon, the crucial ingredient necessary for life on Earth (alright, maybe silicon might also work). Interestingly, JPL tells us that the mineral content of the soil is not much different from the upper dry valleys in Antarctica. What Phoenix’ wet chemical analysis (still ongoing) shows is that there is no life in the soil sample tested by MECA. They’re going to dig down further in the next few days. The Phoenix Lander’s follow-the-water strategy for searching for organic compounds is, however, exactly the right strategy for NASA or other space agencies to pursue. Here’s a hint -- if tomorrow we could land the Phoenix Lander or Mars Science Laboratory on Enceladus or Titan or any other body in this sun system, the test results would show that there is no life in this sun system other than on Earth. It takes more than liquid water for life to emerge. But the Milky Way galaxy is teeming with life and with intelligent life. As Mulder said, “the truth is out there.”

FlyingSinger said...

Thanks for the comment. I read somewhere that the Phoenix experiments are not designed to identify "life" even if it were present in the soil, but just to do a moderately thorough chemical analysis of the regolith. This analysis can (and has started to) provide information on some of the chemical prerequisites for "life as we know it" - baby steps, but we know that baby steps are very important!