Soil in Mars Arctic Region.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/ U of Arizona

Conflicting Results from Phoenix Science Instruments Prompts Further Study

4 Aug , 2008

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Scientists from the Phoenix lander are analyzing conflicting results from soil samples delivered to two science instruments on the Mars lander. Two different samples analyzed by the spacecraft’s Wet Chemistry Lab both suggested one of the soil constituents may be perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance that is considered toxic. But results from the TEGA instrument, (Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer) downloaded from the lander over the weekend indicated no evidence of perchlorate. These findings may may have prompted the reports of “provocative” science results recently. Today, Phoenix officials said any reports of the spacecraft finding life were unfounded, and over the weekend, the Phoenix spacecraft itself said, via Twitter, that reports of White House briefings were not true. NASA will hold a media teleconference on Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. EDT, to discuss the recent science activities. A press release from the Phoenix team today said, “Confirmation of the presence of perchlorate and supporting data is important prior to scientific peer review and subsequent public announcements.”

Scientists said that while the conflicting results are unexpected, they are working hard to understand the soil chemistry and mineralogy in the Mars northern arctic region.

“This is surprising since an earlier TEGA measurement of surface materials was consistent with but not conclusive of the presence of perchlorate,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “We are committed to following a rigorous scientific process. While we have not completed our process on these soil samples, we have very interesting intermediate results,” said Smith, “Initial MECA analyses suggested Earth-like soil. Further analysis has revealed un-Earthlike aspects of the soil chemistry.”

The team also is working to totally exonerate any possibility of the perchlorate readings being influenced by terrestrial sources which may have migrated from the spacecraft, either into samples or into the instrumentation. One type of perchlorate, ammonium perchlorate, is sometimes used as an oxidizer in rocket fuel.

“When surprising results are found, we want to review and assure our extensive pre-launch contamination control processes covered this potential,” said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

An article on AviationWeek.com reported August 1 that the US president had been briefed on findings from Phoenix, and NASA would be ready to reveal the findings in mid-August. An article on Universe Today was based on that report. Today, Aviation Week & Space Technology stands by its report, saying that “the new information involves the “potential for life” on Mars. That potential can either be positive or negative, and the new data indicate the new soil tests are at best inconclusive, according to the information being released on the soil chemistry experiment.”

Phoenix’s Wet Chemistry Lab is part of the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA instrument which studies soluble chemicals in the soil by mixing a soil sample with a water-based solution with several reagents brought from Earth. The inner surface of each cell’s beaker has 26 sensors that give information about the acidity or alkalinity and concentrations of elements such as chloride or perchlorate. The beaker also can detect concentrations of magnesium, calcium and potassium, which form salts that are soluble in water.

The TEGA instrument has tiny ovens that heat soil samples, and analyzers that “sniff” vapors released from substances in a sample.

Original News Source: Phoenix News


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Maxwell
Member
Maxwell
August 4, 2008 7:50 PM

It sounds like an unavoidable issue of chemical confusion when you scoop where the lander just pooped.

Maybe someone with a better understanding of biochemistry can explain but, what would the presence of natural perchlorate mean in respect to the potential for life?

mrbill
Member
August 4, 2008 8:09 PM

Ha. Huge let down.

Hugh
Guest
Hugh
August 4, 2008 8:47 PM

Hmmm, just like getting pregnant, then finding your not.

giovanni abatematteo
Guest
giovanni abatematteo
August 4, 2008 10:35 PM

surely any waterice soil in the vicinity of phoenix lander must have been heavily polluted by the exhaustng encines during landing

Qev
Member
Qev
August 5, 2008 12:17 AM

@Maxwell: Aren’t the Phoenix’s landing thrusters powered by hydrazine, and not a perchlorate-oxidizer/fuel mix?

Van
Guest
Van
August 5, 2008 12:46 AM

Hey, we known since Viking that the chemisty of Mars is just very weird.

It will be interesting to see if the perchlorate could be a resource for a return trip.

David R.
Member
David R.
August 5, 2008 4:03 AM

In a smoke filled press room, 12 angry scientists clutched their sweat-stained spectrograph reports chanting, ” We want our perchlorate and we want it now.” Meanwhile, the two presidential candidates, moved to compassion, tearfully hugged each other and pledged their support. Choking back emotion, they emarked on the first-ever perchlorate world tour, joined by a chorus of aging folk singers.

Aodhhan
Member
Aodhhan
August 5, 2008 4:44 AM
Perchlorate is typically used in solid rocket fuel, and can be found in explosives like fireworks and other various pyrotechnics. It is a stretch, but possible there was some sort of contamination. Phoenix thrusters used hydrazine to land on the planet, so “directly” it is unlikely a source. I’m not sure if there were some other pyrotechnic devices used on the craft or launch vehicle. Have to watch for an investigation. Perchlorate is a highly oxidizing salt. In short, it means it would be difficult to grow plants an area containing it. Quite a different report from the initial findings, which found a great deal of non-reactive minerals. A fact which irritates many I bet. So, like a… Read more »
Eric Near Buffalo
Guest
Eric Near Buffalo
August 5, 2008 6:37 AM

I saw something on the scroller while watching Glenn Beck on Headline News last night that said there was a toxic chemical found in Mars’ soil and that it dims chances for finding life on Mars. Could that be the perchlorate we’re focused on now?

emma
Guest
emma
August 5, 2008 7:02 AM

ahh its probably all another big government coverup!!!!!

A.
Guest
A.
August 5, 2008 8:18 AM

Yep – notice how they were heading to talk to the Bush Science Advisory board over the weekend, and now, after they were supposed to have the conference …

“Nope, uhh, no conference here. No idea what any of you are talking about.”

Some might call me a “conspiracy theorist,” or something like that, which is fine. However, please keep in mind the Bush administration’s track record of restricting publication of / editing content of / denying evidence of climate science articles. They’ve forced the EPA’s hand on a few issues, as well.

Conspiracy theorist? I’d like to call myself a “rational alarmist.” razz

Eric Near Buffalo
Guest
Eric Near Buffalo
August 5, 2008 9:09 AM
I think I know exactly why there are cover-ups. Many many people have this deep rooted understanding of how “God created the Earth” and nothing else was supposed to have life – just another example of our amazing ego. If we were to find out that Mars is harboring life, people would flip out. Same thing goes for the possibility and almost certainty that aliens exist and have visited our planet. People will go absolutely hysterical and there will be chaos because they’ll feel like they’ve been lied to all their lives and that any aliens – and i do mean ANY – must have a personal vendetta to come here and destroy us. I want to know… Read more »
TD
Member
August 5, 2008 10:12 AM
Eric – why do you hate conspiracy theorists? There are some real conspiracies, If there were no conspiracies, there wouldn’t need to be a crime called “conspiracy” At least one president was killed as a result of a conspiracy (Abraham Lincoln), and some other infamous crimes have been the result of conspiracy. I dislike the poor conspiracies because they are a waste of time. Things like “we haven’t been to the moon” is a good example – because there is way too much evidence to the contrary, and way too many people would have to be involved, and it just makes no sense. But I still think it is reasonable to suspect a conspiracy where the other alternatives… Read more »
Aodhhan
Member
Aodhhan
August 5, 2008 11:11 AM

There isn’t necessarily cover-ups for the sake of keeping things from everyone. However, there are things which are withheld in order to keep other countries from taking advantage of somthing you find before you get a chance to continue. This is somewhat common in the scientific community.

If you find “gold”, you don’t want everyone else to know about it, until you have a chance to prospect it.

So, don’t be alarmed if there isn’t more information which will come out at a later date.

gwhitton
Member
gwhitton
August 5, 2008 11:27 AM

I hope the scientists at NASA are not prone to mass generalizations (toxin here, means no life anywhere) about Mars based on the chemical properties of one tiny patch of Martian soil.

Just imagine of some alien probe came to Earth and landed next to a toxic volcanic lake…took a few samples and said damn must be no life here…time to give up. Of course that may explain why we haven’t met any yet.

John
Guest
John
August 5, 2008 11:30 AM
My biggest problem with the search for life on Mars is one with no really good solution. If there is life on Mars, then people will rejoice, (at least those searching for it) and the search will be over. There will be new science to pursuit but the big question will be answered. This is not so much a problem, but it is an element of a greater problem. If there is no life on Mars, there will never be a point where everyone can agree to stop searching and move on to other important questions. How will we ever colonize Mars, or consider the possibility of terraforming or mining the planet if we always treat it with… Read more »
Eric Near Buffalo
Guest
Eric Near Buffalo
August 5, 2008 11:48 AM
I think it was an error is speech to say that I hated conspiracy theorists, generally. I hate the ones that have nothing really backing up what their saying. I have this on Mars and life: Either something catastrophic happened to Mars that blew most of it’s atmosphere away or it never had much of an atmosphere to begin with that would help it retain heat. I tend to lean toward the first belief. There are too many features on that planet to have been shaped only by wind erosion, meteors and/or asteroids and volcanism. Volcanism has been dormant on Mars, as far as we can figure, for eons. So if the planet itself is brutally cold, has… Read more »
YOGIH
Guest
YOGIH
August 5, 2008 1:10 PM
I’ not a conspirationist either, and still -yes, this is indeed the proof they found “something”. “Huge” discovery to be announced and then next minute -wham- weird conflict appears. they even left a ray of hope – “it could be from Phoenix contamination”, and need further investgation. What further investgation? Is NASA that stupid to not fully test Phoenix on Earth in a “virtual Mars environment”, including the full set of landing and analyzing material. They could do just that to check their Phoenix on board gadgets and if they wouldn’t find anything wrong here then on Mars the accuracy of tests will be perfect. This kind of contamination could occur here on Earth as well. Even now… Read more »
Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
August 5, 2008 3:03 PM

I hope we don’t “abruptly lose communication” with the lander anytime soon.. Then we will never hear the end of it! smile

Rolfruhig2
Member
August 5, 2008 6:27 PM

I fail to see the political point on these “findings” and the delay to make them public. Io Tru02 is partially right.

Why doesn’t NASA publish all the photos taken? Why the mystery? What is really going on.

Why they adamantly refuse to answer all questions. We all are interested.

As for you in this forum, thank you for censoring my last comment.

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