Phoenix delivers regolith to the wet lab (NASA/UA)

Phoenix: Mars Soil Can Support Life

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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Another groundbreaking discovery from Mars: Phoenix has analysed martian regolith containing minerals more commonly found in soil here on Earth, and the acidity is not a hindrance for life to thrive. These new and very exciting results come after preliminary analyses of a scoop of regolith by the landers “wet lab” known as the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument. Although more data collecting needs to be done, trace levels of nutrients have already been detected. This, with the recent discovery of water ice, has amazed mission scientists, likening these new results to “winning the lottery.”

The MECA instrument is carrying out the first ever wet-chemical analysis on a planet other than Earth, and these first results are tantalisingly close to providing answers for the question: “Can Mars support life?” Taken from a scoop of top-soil, the robotic digger managed to excavate a 2 cm deep ditch, delivering the sample to the MECA where analysis could be carried out. The first results from the two-day wet-lab experiment are flooding in and mission scientists are excited by the results. “We are awash in chemistry data,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead scientist for the MECA.

The salts discovered contain magnesium, sodium, potassium and chlorine, indicating these minerals had once been dissolved in water. The knowledge that these elements exist in martian regolith is nothing new, but the fact that they would be soluble in water means they would have been available for life to form. In fact, there are some strong similarities between the mineral content and pH level of the martian surface and soils more commonly found here on Earth.

This soil appears to be a close analog to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica. The alkalinity of the soil at this location is definitely striking. At this specific location, one-inch into the surface layer, the soil is very basic, with a pH of between eight and nine. We also found a variety of components of salts that we haven’t had time to analyze and identify yet, but that include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.” – Sam Kounaves, Phoenix co-investigator, Tufts University.

From the question “Has Mars supported life?” to “Can Mars support life?” – The answer seems to be an overwhelming “Yes.” Although nitrates have yet to be detected, the Mars soil appears to have an alkalinity commonly found in terrestrial soils. At a pH of eight or nine, a zoo of bacteria and plants can live comfortably. Vegetables such as asparagus and turnips are farmed in soils to this degree of alkalinity. Besides, extreme forms of bacteria have been discovered in environments that resemble the alkalinity of bleach, exceeding a pH of 12. The martian surface has suddenly become a little more hospitable for life to thrive.

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.” – Kounaves.

Although these first results are very exciting, mission scientists are staying realistic. This is only one of several tests, plus it is a sample from a single location. As the digger only scooped a sample 2 cm deep, scientists are keen to see if the regolith deeper down has similar chemistry, so the intention is to dig deeper into the same location, possibly including ice.

Aside: The term “Mars soil”, up to this point, hasn’t been technically accurate. If we look at the definition of “soil” we get:

The material on the surface of the ground in which plants grow; earth
– Cambridge Dictionaries.
The top layer of the earth’s surface, consisting of rock and mineral particles mixed with organic matter.
Answers.com

The stuff with a red hue on Mars is actually regolith, pulverized grains of rock from hundreds of millions of years of meteorite impacts, geological activity and weathering. Until Phoenix produced these new findings, the most accurate way to describe Mars “soil” was to call it regolith. But now, it seems, Mars regolith fulfils most of the characteristics of being a soil. It contains rock, it contains minerals and it appears to have a pH capable of sustaining plant growth. But does it already contain organic matter? Whether it contains anything “organic” now is open to debate, but it might do in the future…

Sources: Phoenix (UA), New Scientist


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marcellus
Guest
marcellus
June 27, 2008 12:18 AM

Hooray for Phoenix! Manifest Destiny!!!!

Death From The Skies!
Guest
Death From The Skies!
June 26, 2008 6:10 PM

I’m counting the minutes until a news article pops up with the headline:

“Mars probe finds life in soil”

mewo
Member
mewo
June 26, 2008 6:28 PM

Fingers crossed.

hd
Guest
hd
June 26, 2008 7:00 PM

Fingers crossed they find some nitrates too.

bugzzz
Member
bugzzz
June 26, 2008 7:05 PM

forgive this naive question, but would we be ‘allowed’ to test the Martian soil by literally trying to grow plants right in that soil? Or would it violate some galactic ‘prime directive’?

Muz
Guest
Muz
June 27, 2008 4:02 AM

Question/remark after reading John’s reply :

isn’t one of the “problems” the low gravity, which causes gasses like co2 or hydro to be released into space instead of the atmosphere?

im not really into the technical brake down like some of you guys but this Phoenix mission really draws my attention!

Tyler Durden
Guest
Tyler Durden
June 26, 2008 9:10 PM

There is no galactic prime directive, and I wouldn’t give a damn if there were. At * most * there are cellullar organisms there, and we can destroy every last one for all I care.

Alex
Guest
Alex
June 26, 2008 9:25 PM
indeed^^ but a bit of a stretch The Phoenix Landers’ Original design did have that in it’s artillery , but it eventually went to the government to which they gave the proverbial Roman thumbs down…..ahhh you should of seen the metal the mere brawn of the two Phoenix Landers’ battling out here in a Studio? , yes according to many Moon Landing Conspiratists’ , that is the best way to make the background seem more Space Like… they fought and without remorse , the Lander with that capability succumbed to the heat of Phoenix and suffered a most gracious and mercy filled defeat …. All glory to the one on Mar’s Now , foolishly digging away , when… Read more »
Alex
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Alex
June 26, 2008 9:26 PM

which is ironically the victorious speech that Lander shouted at the defeat of the one that could plant trees

LLDIAZ
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LLDIAZ
June 27, 2008 7:37 AM

Mars will be colonized but not in the sense that you think. I see domed cities in which people, live some domes will be to recycle the water supply – some will be to grow food and even the outer shell of the dome will be made up of solar panels for energy along with wind turbines. The dust storms that occur would collect enough energy for years. We are adaptable, the only thing I worry about is ancient martian diseases.

psoupy
Member
psoupy
June 27, 2008 12:53 AM

Surely the scientists are not that surprised to find “soil” with a near to neutral pH.
Did they really expect to find “soil” either as strong or stronger than bleach or sulphuric acid, and the mineral content should not come as a big surprise either!
The water content livens things up some what but what they need to do is show us the nitrates! That will point to possible amino acids and the breakdown of organic materials… That is when it will get very interesting!
My fingers are crossed!

Chris Coles
Guest
June 27, 2008 2:18 AM
The Nitrates will be found at or close to the bottom of the frozen ocean that must mimic the frozen ice on Antarctica where, if you read the February 2008 edition of Scientific American, there is a thin film of water lubricating the interface between the land surface and the base of the ice sheet. Remember, depending on the thickness the pressure at the bottom of the ice will create conditions that will increase the temperature. You do not need that much pressure to increase the temperature by 70C. The upper surface will be the result of the continuous sublimation of the ice under the dusty covering. So we can assume the surface layers have been bathed in… Read more »
John
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John
June 27, 2008 2:28 AM
I cannot see why we don’t just send a lander with a series of small airtight greenhouses on board. Small plexiglass or lexan domes could be used, into which the digging tool could pour a soil sample. Then, add a modest amount of heat to the soil/water mix, and see if anything grows. If nothing grows, then, next, add a higher level of atmosphere to the domed mini-biosphere. See what happens then. If nothing happens, add a few seeds of various different earthly plants to see if they can grow in the soil and with the level of sunlight on Mars. The plexiglass can be made impermeable to the ultraviolet C rays that might, otherwise, kill the plants,… Read more »
LLDIAZ
Guest
LLDIAZ
June 27, 2008 10:58 AM

If you think about it clearly if the microbes cant be contained they’ll have to be destroyed.There is no way we can be allowed in the same room with anything alien without 100% assurances that it is not harmful to that person or any one around that person.

Greg
Guest
Greg
June 27, 2008 4:02 AM
This is very exciting! I’ve always suspected that if the ingredients to sustain life are present, and you have enough time, then life will find a way. Certainly on Earth life has found a niche in the most inhospitable of places. But I’m not sure that Phoenix has the capacity to determine if life is actually present – so I’m not expecting any announcements yet! Also – to John : Mars cannot support an atmosphere regardless of how much CO2 is released through because it has no magnetic field to protect it from the solar wind which would simply strip it off the surface, even if it did, it’s (relatively) low mass means the atmosphere would be far… Read more »
alan
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alan
June 27, 2008 4:06 AM

Now with this new soil info, I’m waiting to here from the Viking lander people about its findings from back in the 70’s.
They claimed it detected life but the argument was the soil was strange and caused false positives for life. We may know the answer already for the past 30+ years!

LLDIAZ
Guest
LLDIAZ
June 27, 2008 11:10 AM

It has nothing to do with the U.S. It should be a global thing.
Why is the U.S. always looked on as the aggresor I think we play a better role than that in the global community. We give so much and yes we do anger alot of our peers but look at it this way would you have wanted the USSR to have come out on top after the cold war.

LLDIAZ
Guest
LLDIAZ
June 27, 2008 11:16 AM

IM NOT CRAZY JUST A FEW PLUTOIDS SHORT OF A SOLAR SYSTEM……………………………………………….

Rolfruhig2
Member
June 27, 2008 7:20 AM

No!? I’m shocked! What a surprise!

TD
Member
June 27, 2008 5:54 AM
I’m with you, Alan. The only stated reason that Mars was sterile from the Viking results was that the Viking biologists claimed the soil oxidized organics. Were down to that question being the only barrier to life on Mars. Hopefully Phoenix will answer that question soon and “Imminent Discovery” can be updated to have a happy ending…… By the way, I’m still waiting to hear the results of the atmospheric composition test (was there any methane?, as was discovered in 1969 and again in 2004), and see the actual soil surface temperature and soil temperature gradient (not the air temperature at one meter high….what microbe living in the soil would ever care about that?) Good Luck Phoenix
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