The White House is Briefed: Phoenix About to Announce “Potential For Life” on Mars

by Ian O'Neill on August 2, 2008

The surface zones where samples have been excavated by Phoenix (NASA)

The surface zones where samples have been excavated by Phoenix (NASA)


It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more “provocative” than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface. This news comes just as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of water in the Mars regolith on Thursday. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface, new data appears to indicate the “potential for life” more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge

So why is there all this secrecy? According to scientists in communication with Aviation Week & Space Technology, the next big discovery will need to be mulled over for a while before it is announced to the world. In fact, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science team for the MECA wet-chemistry instrument that made these undisclosed findings were kept out of the July 31st news conference (confirming water) so additional analysis could be carried out, avoiding any questions that may have revealed their preliminary results. They have also made the decision to discuss the results with the Bush Administration’s Presidential Science Advisor’s office before a press conference between mid-August and early September.

Although good news, Thursday’s announcement of the discovery of water on Mars comes as no surprise to mission scientists and some are amused by the media’s reaction to the TEGA results. “They have discovered water on Mars for the third or fourth time,” one senior Mars scientist joked. These new MECA results are, according to the Phoenix team, a little more complex than the water “discovery.” Scientists are keen to point out however, that this secretive news will in no way indicate the existence of life (past or present) on Mars; Phoenix simply is not equipped make this discovery. What it can do is test the Mars soil for compounds suitable to support life. The MECA instrument does have microscopes capable of resolving bacterial-scale life forms however, but this is not the focus of the forthcoming announcement, sources say.

This new MECA discovery, combined with TEGA data will probably expose something more compelling, completing another piece of the puzzle in the search for the correct conditions for life as we know it to survive on Mars. Critical to this search is to understand how the recently confirmed water and Mars regolith behave together under the Phoenix lander in the cold Martian arctic.

The MECA instrument had already made the landmark discovery that Mars “soil” was much like the soil more familiar on Earth. This finding prompted scientists to indicate that the minerals and pH levels in the regolith could support some terrestrial plants, indicating this would be useful for future Mars settlers.

What with the discovery of water, and the discovery that Mars soil is very much like the stuff we find on Earth, it is hard to guess as to what the MECA’s second soil test has discovered. What ever it is, it sounds pretty significant, especially as NASA and the University of Arizona are taking extraordinary steps to avoid any more details being leaked to the outside world. I just hope were not getting excited over something benign…

So what will this compelling discovery be? Leave your guess below…

Source: Aviation Week

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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