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6/27/2008
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Martian Soil Points Toward Possibility Of Life

NASA says the soil appears similar to that found in Antarctica's dry upper valleys and the salts it contains are another indication of the presence of water.


Martian Soil Points Toward Possibility Of Life

The soil appears similar to that found in Antarctica's dry upper valleys and the salts it contains are another indication of the presence of water.
(click for larger image)

Scientists have discovered that Martian soil is rich in nutrients.

NASA researchers want to determine whether the planet could support, or ever has supported, life. The nutrients are among a few positive indicators they have gleaned since the Phoenix Mars Lander began collecting and testing soil samples last month. Early findings, including ice crystals and nutrients, point toward water -- the chemical basis for life.

Phoenix co-investigator William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead TEGA scientist, called the data "spectacular."

"At this point, we can say that the soil has clearly interacted with water in the past," he said. "We don't know whether that interaction occurred in this particular area in the northern polar region, or whether it might have happened elsewhere and blown up to this area as dust."

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander began its first wet chemistry experiment on Martian soil this week. NASA said the experiment went "flawlessly" and produced data that, for Phoenix scientists, "was like winning the lottery." On Friday, some work remained before the first wet-chemical analysis was complete. This is the first such experiment done on any planet other than Earth would be complete, according to Phoenix co-investigator Sam Kounaves of Tufts University, who serves as the science lead for the wet chemistry research.

Kounaves said the soil appears similar to that found in Antarctica's dry upper valleys and the salts it contains are another indication of the presence of water.

"We also found a reasonable number of nutrients, or chemicals needed by life as we know it," Kounaves said. "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."

The soil about one-inch into the surface layer is alkaline, with a pH between eight and nine, and it appears to contain magnesium, sodium, potassium, and chloride, according to Kouvanes.

"We are awash in chemistry data," Michael Hecht, lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument on Phoenix, said. "We're trying to understand what is the chemistry of wet soil on Mars, what's dissolved in it, how acidic or alkaline it is. With the results we received from Phoenix yesterday, we could begin to tell what aspects of the soil might support life."

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