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6/16/2008
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Phoenix Mars Lander Analyzes, Finds Minerals In Soil

The sample contains almost 1,000 separate particles -- some smaller than one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is analyzing soil samples after overcoming a few hurdles.

The Mars lander had difficulties delivering soil to a small oven after the soil clumped and failed to sift through a screen. The team managing the mission programmed the craft to shake the soil a bit more, and the effort was a success.

NASA reported Friday that it obtained "the most magnified view ever seen of Martian soil," which revealed clumping even of the tiniest particles that could be seen.

"This is the first time since the Viking missions three decades ago that a sample is being studied inside an instrument on Mars," Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a news announcement. "Understanding the soil is a major goal of this mission and the soil is a bit different than we expected. There could be real discoveries to come as we analyze this soil with our various instruments. We have just the right instruments for the job."

The sample contains almost 1,000 separate particles -- some smaller than one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, NASA reported. The soil contains larger, shiny black specs and smaller reddish particles, and scientists said they have found at least four minerals in the sample. NASA said the particles look like those found in airborne dust.

"We may be looking at a history of the soil," said Tom Pike, of Imperial College London and Phoenix co-investigator.

Pike, whose specialty is the lander's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, said it looks like "original particles of volcanic glass have weathered down to smaller particles with higher concentration of iron."

"It's been more than 11 years since we had the idea to send a microscope to Mars and I'm absolutely gobsmacked that we're now looking at the soil of Mars at a resolution that has never been seen before," he said.

Phoenix co-investigator and atmospheric scientist Nilton Renno, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said scientists predict "big dust storms at the end of the mission," and Mars' atmosphere contains a greater mixture of dust than Earth's atmosphere.

"That's a surprise," Renno said.

The study of dust could help researchers improve their understanding of atmospheric dust on Earth, which they believe contributes to climate change. The soil could reveal clues as to whether there ever was, or could be, life on Mars.

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