Phoenix Discovery Could be Proof that Life Cannot Thrive on Mars

The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)
The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)

Oh dear. It’s the possible result that 23% of Astroengine readers (who voted that they wanted Phoenix to find “A strong indicator for the presence of organic compounds” as of August 5th, 3am) did not want to see. According to Phoenix mission control, recent analysis by the MECA instrument on board the lander appears to have discovered something bad hiding in the Martian soil. Perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance appears to have been detected just under the icy top-layer of the surface, possibly hindering the development of life (certainly the possibility of current life, perhaps past life too). Over the weekend the Internet exploded with reports that we were on the verge of a major discovery, leading to some reports indicating Phoenix had discovered life on the planet (nah, couldn’t happen). However, there were more grounded theories that further evidence for organic compounds may have been found or there was something more compelling than the discovery of water. But no, it looks like the forthcoming press conference (Tuesday, 11am) might have some bad news for us. A chemical that would actually halt the development of life may have been unearthed, possibly hindering the future of manned exploration of the Red Planet…
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Twitter: Phoenix Mars Lander Refutes White House Report

A Twitter statement from Phoenix (Twitter screenshot)
Right from the robot's mouth - Phoenix disagrees with reports (Twitter screenshot)

So the plot thickens… Ever since the primary source for the “Phoenix Affair” hit the blogosphere, it spread like a rampaging virus (with the help of the Universe Today and Astroengine.com, ehem). In the early hours of this morning, it was Aviation Week who broke the news that they had been in contact with an unnamed source, leading to the implication that Phoenix had discovered something and the NASA team had set off to Washington for an audience with the President’s Science Advisor. Having waited the whole day for a Phoenix/NASA response to this news, I’ve been frustrated with the lack of weekend activity at Mars HQ. That is until now. Right from the robot’s mouth, Phoenix has disputed the White House claims. On the Phoenix Twitter feed, the perky little robot exclaimed: “Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect,” (from MarsPhoenix).
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Phoenix, Government Intrigue, Possibility for Organics on Mars, Astroengine Falls into a Digg-Induced Singularity

The Phoenix Mars lander has thoughts too (NASA/JPL/UA)
The Phoenix Mars lander has thoughts too (NASA/JPL/UA)

Today, two of my Phoenix Mars Lander articles hit the front page of Digg knocking Astroengine.com offline intermittently. The reason for the popularity? It would seem that after Aviation Week reported an undisclosed Phoenix team source’s views that an “even bigger” discovery (than the scientific proof of water) was to be announced this month, only after consulting with the US President’s science advisor. Naturally many readers of the articles are suspicious of this move, after all, why consult with government officials after two months of public transparent scientific study? Surely any discovery that supports the Phoenix mission objective to understand whether the Martian landscape could support past, present or future life forms should be discussed after a clear public statement? It would appear that both the TEGA and MECA instruments have been used to derive this new data, so what has Phoenix uncovered? Let’s hope it’s not a storm in a teacup…

Before reading on, join the fun on Digg:

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Phoenix has Found Something More Compelling than Water: President Bush Informed

The Mars vista as seen by Phoenix (NASA/JPL/UA)
The Mars vista as seen by Phoenix (NASA/JPL/UA)

On Thursday, NASA held a press conference to announce that the recent TEGA experiment on board Phoenix had confirmed the presence of water in the Martian soil. Whist exciting, Phoenix scientists were expecting that result. However, behind the scenes, something else was being discussed and it had little to do with melting water…
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Rolling Rock or Walking Martian?

The Mars "walker" taking a stroll across the Red Planet's surface (AboveTopSecret.com)
The Mars walker taking a stroll across the Red Planets surface (AboveTopSecret.com)

So the new X-Files movie has been released (awesome), there’s been a surge in alien stories (on YouTube, the most reputable scientific resource), NASA astronauts are citing that UFOs are actually extraterrestrials visiting Earth (of course), and now we have beings with big heads having a stroll on the Martian surface. It must be the season for it…
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Midnight Sun on Mars by Phoenix

A mosaic of the position of the Sun above the Martian landscape over 11 sols (NASA/JPL)
A mosaic of the position of the Sun above the Martian landscape over 11 sols (NASA/JPL)

Phoenix is still working hard on the surface of Mars, scraping and digging into the frozen regolith, preparing samples for the next TEGA bake. This next sample to be dropped into one of the eight on board ovens will intensify the excitement for the confirmation of water ice (in abundance) on the Martian surface. The Phoenix Mars lander has been working on the Red Planet for 57 Sols (a.k.a. Martian days) since it landed on May 25th, the robot has pretty much operated as planned, exceeding all expectations (to be honest, I was relieved it touched down in one piece, anything else was a bonus!). But today, the lander releases a stunning image from its Surface Stereo Imager that really brings the whole mission into perspective: Martian midnight Sun…
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And This Mysterious Mound is Where?

Mystery mounds - we know it's a mystery, but please give us a clue? (HiRISE/NASA)
Mystery mounds - we know it's a mystery, but please give us a clue? (HiRISE/NASA)

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is a stunning piece of kit. It is generating a vast quantity of images, all lovingly displayed on the HiRISE and other NASA websites. New views of the Mars landscape appear almost daily, with technical information on the projected scene, a polished display image, raw files and a little bit of text telling us what we are looking at. So far so good. That was until recently… Generally speaking, articles with compelling images do rather well online, plus I’m a big believer in “a picture speaks a thousand words,” so I jumped on the chance of running an article about some mysterious shapes that have recently been seen on the planet. Obviously the writer of the HiRISE image was of the same mind by letting the picture do the talking and… well, forgetting to mention where these mysterious features were located…. a mystery indeed…
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Now we can Call Martian Regolith “Soil” Thanks to Phoenix

Phoenix sprinkles regolith into the oven (NASA/UA)

This is just one of those niggles I’ve felt ever since I started working on Mars projects and articles. How can “Mars soil” be an accurate description of the stuff that sits on the surface of Mars? You see it written everywhere, from NASA to New Scientist, writers have referred to Martian regolith as soil. Why is this? Is regolith and soil that much different? Perhaps I was just getting my knickers in a twist for no reason; perhaps they were the same thing after all. So back to basics, I grabbed for my trusty old dusty dictionary and stopped leafing through the pages at “S”… there, soil. Now for “R”… got R but no regolith (wasn’t that a word in 1980?), just regorge (that isn’t pretty). So I get online and do my research 21st Century style: Google.

I found my answer, but it turns out recent data from the Phoenix Mars lander has complicated matters… apparently the writers at NASA and New Scientist were right all along (even though they didn’t realise it)…
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Watch out Phoenix! Don’t Scratch the CD!

Abrasive – Phoenix sprinkles regolith into the oven (NASA/UA)

I’ve just written an article over on the Universe Today about the stunning discovery that Mars regolith actually bears very close resemblance to terrestrial soil. This is very cool as this shows Mars may be capable of sustaining life (as we know it) and it has implications for the future of manned Mars missions (we might be able to use this mineral-rich soil for growing plants for instance). So rather than replicating the article here, I urge you to pop over to the Universe Today article (Phoenix: Mars Soil Can Support Life) and enjoy (I was quite proud of pointing out the huge difference between “soil” and “regolith” in the final paragraph!). But that’s not the point of this Astroengine post, I have a far more pressing issue to voice…
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Yes, Phoenix has Found Water on Mars

Got Water? (© Tastes Funny, http://tastesfunny.net/2008/06/20/got-water/)
Finally, proof that water has been found on Mars. The Phoenix Mars lander took a scoop of regolith on Sol 20 (June 19th), exposing a white powdery substance. Immediately, scientists announced that the substance was either some form of ice or salt deposits. The prime mission objective for Phoenix is to look for evidence for water, past and present, in the uppermost layers of the surface. Although tests on excavated material are ongoing inside the onboard oven instrument (the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA), baking the sample and analysing the vapour produced, Phoenix scientists have discovered water ice simply by taking two photographs four days apart…

I found the “Got Water?” image very apt and the T-shirt design can be found over at Tastes Funny
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