NASA and University of Arizona scientists confirmed today that there is indeed water on the Red Planet and that the Phoenix Mars mission would be extended several more weeks.
“We’ve now finally touched it and tasted it,” said UA scientist Bill Boynton. “It tastes very fine.”
Of course, for the scientist to have literally tasted Martian water, he would have had to make the 200-million-mile trip to the polar region of the Red Planet. Instead, he referred to the many instruments the Phoenix Mars Lander used to probe the planet’s soil.
Boynton is the lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, on the spacecraft, which is a series of ovens that tests samples from the Martian soil.
The success of the mission so far has prompted officials to give the project another month and another $2 million to continue experiments.
“We have lots more to explore within reach of our robotic arm,” said Michael Meyer, chief NASA scientist for Mars exploration.
Originally set to wrap up at the end of August, the mission now has until Sept. 30 to continue its study of the history of water on the planet and to investigate whether it could sustain life.
The TEGA instrument bakes soil samples to test for mineral content. The soil sample taken July 30 contained a bit of the coveted ice scientists suspected was there.
Nicknamed the Wicked Witch sample, Boynton donned a black witch’s hat to explain that the soil was like the oven-burned antagonist in “Hansel and Gretel” and Dorothy’s nemesis in the “Wizard of Oz.”
“I’m melting,” Boynton said, quoting the latter.
Like the sample, other elements of the mission have been named after fairly tales.
The extension of the mission means the lander’s robotic arm will dig two new trenches, Cupboard and Neverland, between the Dodo-Goldilocks and Snow White trenches, which have already yielded other usable samples.
The mission’s extension also gives scientists an opportunity to better monitor weather patterns on Mars. So far, the lander has recorded an average high temperature of -22 degrees and an average low temperature of -110 degrees.
Scientists this week also unveiled a panoramic image of the area around the lander, which was stitched together from 400 color photographs. The scene reveals a flat landscape dotted with small rocks and pebbles and covered with a layer of wind-blown, rust-colored dust.
So far, the lander has spent 65 sols, or Martian days, on the planet.
In earth-time, the Phoenix spacecraft began its trip to Mars in August 2007 and reached its May 25, 2008.
Scientists based near UA oversee most of the mission’s operations.