Clumps growing on Phoenix lander's legs.

Clumps Growing on Phoenix Lander Legs

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

Clumps of material have adhered to the legs of the Phoenix Mars Lander, and the clumps continue to change and grow. The science team has discussed various possible explanations for these clumps. One suggestion is that they may have started from a splash of mud if Phoenix’s descent engines melted icy soil during the landing. Another is that specks of salt may have landed on the strut and began attracting atmospheric moisture that freezes and accumulates. The clumps are concentrated on the north side of the strut, usually in the shade, so their accumulation could be a consequence of the fact that condensation favors colder surfaces. Below, compare images taken on September 1, 2008, or the 97th Martian Day or sol, since landing with another image taken about three months earlier, on Sol 8.

Sol 97 image under the lander.  Credit:  NASA/JPL/Caltech/U of AZ

Sol 8 image from under the lander.  Credit:  NASA/JPL/Caltech/U of AZ

Phoenix’s Robotic Arm Camera took both images. The top image from Sol 97 was taken at about 4 a.m. local solar time. The view in this Sol 97 image is southward. Illumination is from the early morning sun above the northeastern horizon. This is quite different from the illumination in the Sol 8 image, bottom which was taken in mid-afternoon.

The two images also show a contrast in the flat, smooth patch of exposed ice underneath the lander. Phoenix team members believe the ice was exposed from the spacecraft’s thrusters as it landed. In the latest image, the patches of ice exposed underneath the lander seem to be partly covered by darker material left behind as ice vaporizes away. The flat patch in the center of the image has the informal name “Holy Cow,” based on researchers’ reaction when they saw the initial image of it.

Source: Phoenix Gallery

59 Responses

  1. John Mendenhall says:

    I think it is most likely some kind of frozen condensate. I hope it is some kind of lifeform. The most likely choice and the hopeful choice are two different things.

    Let’s hope, but don’t let your hopes get too high.

  2. Yoo says:

    It could be due to salty dust particles blown through the Martian winds that got stuck on the lander.

  3. Jorge says:

    I wonder: how long will it take for the crackpots start using this as a “proof” that there is life on Mars? πŸ˜‰

  4. Phoenix says:

    Didn’t like this stuff at first…
    But – it grows on you !!!

  5. Mike says:

    Strange that its just on that leg, but heck the lander did its job, probably found life ;ΓƒΕΎ

  6. Bill Illis says:

    I don’t think this was seen on any other Mars lander.

  7. Jorge says:

    Mike, nice try, but the word “probably” isn’t part of the crackpot lexicon… πŸ™‚

  8. Vino says:

    I am still worried abt the absence of moisture in the soil …how can we find all these condensates on the leg and the possible explaination of moisture, salt, etc…..
    too damn confusing for the peace of mind!!!

  9. crackpot says:

    This proves there is life on mars. πŸ˜‰

  10. Mek says:

    Oh my god, Mars is assimilating Phoenix~!

  11. Mike S says:

    I would like to know why the photos are in black and white. I guess color pictures are just too advanced for todays world.

  12. DrNecropolis says:

    Does the lander itself put out much heat? That could contribute to the accumulation of condensate and martian dust bunnies

  13. dave s says:

    Maybe it’s just me but, those nodules appear to be moving up the leg. Is it possible that the heat from the descent engine and the uncovering of the ice layer has disturbed something that was asleep for millions of years?

  14. Yoo says:

    I would like to know why the photos are in black and white.

    Taking a color picture means taking multiple pictures with different filters and sending back all the images. For a quick photo, black and white is the way to go.

    (As for why they didn’t just put in a sensor that contains different types of pixels sensitive to different wavelengths of light, I imagine weight, cost, and bandwidth issues might have been factors.)

  15. Timechick says:

    Mars fungus!

    Either that or frost. πŸ™‚ The leg does look like it’s in shadow all the time.

  16. Aodhhan says:

    Black and white (actually gray scale) gives you 4 times the resolution of color photos. Why??
    Because color photos require the use of red, yellow, blue and white (in separate pixels) while black and white just requires a single grayscale pixel.
    In other words, black and white can show you in one pixel, what color takes 3 to 4 pixels.

  17. sps says:

    I guess this black and white pix ‘el just have to do.

  18. TD says:

    For cryin’ out loud, are some less-resolution color pictures too much to ask for….like the kind any ten year old gets from a digital camera these days. I don’t aks for multiple filters and wiz-bang spectral analysis (that we never seem to hear about) – but it would be nice to get some store-bought digital camera quality COLOR images of Mars. You don’t need the fancy filters for nice color digital pictures on Earth. This kind of shinanigans has got to stop. The 1960’s are over – it’s 2008.

    Also, based on the stuff growing on the lander leg, perhaps the best thing to do is ………RUN !

  19. Mike says:


    Sorry i’ll try again πŸ™‚

  20. John says:

    There are plenty of color images of Mars.

    And by the way you DO need fancy filters for nice color pictures on Earth. In case you never noticed, nearly all digital cameras have some sort of infrared filter and the digital image processing can create a wide array of varying white balances depending on the shutter and focus settings.

    Scientific imagers, thankfully, are not human eyes, or intended to replicate store bought digital cameras, if they were, we would get some really disappointing images back from Mars.

    The black and white images provide much better contrast for scientific researchers, who have a responsibility to those who fund them to actually… you know… do science, this doesn’t always involve making pretty pictures for you, the pretty pictures are just a nice side outcome.

    Also, most store bought electronics are not rad hardened, or fit for the temperatures and pressures (or lack of) on the surface of Mars.

  21. Silver Thread says:

    I think it’s just the Earl Scheib paint job blistering in the sub zero temperatures. Should have gone to Maaco.

  22. IonTruO2 says:

    We are a long long way past missions like Viking and they were shooting some amazing colour in fact. A super color film had been invented for the mission and so many years later became a public consumer product under the name of Kodak Gold.
    It isn’t about pretty pictures. Its about the continual lowering of the bar in the public engagement. People know through numerous other decent sources that the imaging capability today is way beyond the low res- pap they keep offering or two pics at a time. (this is a general comment about all the imaging releases and not just the Phoenix examples.)

    Final thought to stay on topic: I like the use of the word ‘growing’ in the title. Its all in the choosing of words, so read between the lines people. πŸ˜‰

  23. Steve says:

    It is entirely possible that the heat from the thrusters and the organic molecules on Mars, with the somewhat livable temperatures, has created a solid foundation for some form of growth, possibly fungal, possibly a salt deposit

  24. TD says:

    John, sorry, I just don’t by the arguments. Even if we needed to do the fancy filter images of Mars, it would still be useful to get colors that humans can relate to. The only lander in an area that’s not desert, by Slipher’s map, is Opportunity. Opportunity is in a dark area – and the only thing that looks dark there is what they call “blueberries”. So what color are they, really? Are they blue at all? Why is it so hard to get answer to simple questions like that. There’s lots of questions about Mars that have gone unanswered for 50 years – it’s either time for answers or time for some congressional investigations to find out why we’re giving money to these same scientists. If (and I said “if”) it turns out there there is an ongoing deception of the American taxpayers – well, I wouldn’t want to be in those shoes. This is 2008 and we don’t know if there’s life on Mars? What bigger question could the space program possibly answer, and how could we have such a meager effort? No, it just can’t be.

  25. Chuck Lam says:

    Hmm . . . maybe a new form of lichen. Can the lander sample a little bit of this stuff?

  26. Yoo says:

    If you have a choice of a single greyscale camera capable of getting color photos with a bit of time and a set of filters that cost an overall $1000, or a color camera with the same resolution that cost $10,000, what would you choose?

    (Not that I have any idea what the actual relative costs are …)

  27. giovanny abatematteo says:

    lets faced phoenix is litterally sitting on live growing bacteria which can only thrive out of direct sun light

  28. Molecular says:

    This series of pics is showing what appears to be water beading up on the leg of this lander. Condensation to be more precise. It looks like nothing else but that, in fact.

  29. Chris Coles says:

    During the early 1990’s I designed, built and successfully commissioned a Freeze Drying Microscope for the UK Public Health Laboratory Service. It had the facility to take temperatures down to – 100 degrees Centigrade. Many of your vaccines are produced in solution, freeze dried and then, when needed are re-hydrated for injection. So the environment at the surface of Mars, while not widely understood, does have some parallel with that on earth today.

    Super cooled moisture, water vapour, is attracted to particles suspended in the upper atmosphere to form ice crystals which, as they fall towards the surface here on Earth become raindrops. We have just seen clouds on Mars, so we can be certain that the normal cloud formation is the same process.

    For the same reasons, we must be able to assume that the same processes are working at the surface of Mars. Water vapour must be being sublimated from the ice (and water, at depth), under the surface layers. The water vapour does not immediately become an ice crystal, it must pass through the process of sublimation to water vapour to travel in the atmosphere as supercooled water before becoming attached to the initiator, the small particles thrown up by the lander rockets as it landed at the surface. Exactly as in the upper atmosphere, both here on Earth and Mars.

    So the first thing to acknowledge is that there is supercooled water vapour in the atmosphere.

    2. That water vapour is creating ever larger attached ice crystals on the leg of the lander.

    3. Perhaps most importantly, there is no further action to increase the original initiator particle of matter that started the process. So the “lumps” appearing are almost certainly pure water ice.

    4. These “lumps” are going to increase inexorably.

    5. There must be a very small region between the shadow edge and the sunlight where there is water vapour and water where the heat of the sun has melted the ice crystals each day.

    These early results from this first lander give us many clues to how to resolve a much better design for the future that will take these first clues and allow us to create conditions for better observation of such matters.

    There is no doubt in my mind that there is life on Mars, we just have to go look in the right place to find it.

    People that use the derogative term “crackpot” are simply telling everyone around them that they do not have the ability to see beyond their own febrile imagination.

  30. Aodhhan says:

    Since you are so smart… go make it happen, instead of griping about it.
    There is a huge difference between converting images which show a large field of view, and one which is narrow and close up; no matter what type of camera you use.
    With today’s technology, you can convert grayscale to color, however you have to have something to base the conversion on; in other words something to show you what a certain shade of red looks like in the current field.
    Blah.. why bother trying to explain it; I doubt he can follow the recipe for ice.

  31. Jorge says:

    So the environment at the surface of Mars, while not widely understood, does have some parallel with that on earth today.

    Well, there have been a quite a few thermonuclear explosions around the world. So the environment in the Sun, while not widely understood, does have some parallel with that on Earth today. That parallel is called “laws of physics”. Or, in general “laws of nature”. That’s why, among other things, we can turn the LHC on and, using it, try to come up with general notions about how the whole vast universe works, worked and will work.

    So the first thing to acknowledge is that there is supercooled water vapour in the atmosphere.

    Er… if you check your atmospheric composition for Mars in any textbook, you’ll find water vapour at some 0.05% concentration, or something like that. So what’s to aknowledge? That’s common knowledge for quite a while.

    There is no doubt in my mind that there is life on Mars, we just have to go look in the right place to find it.

    People that use the derogative term “crackpot” are simply telling everyone around them that they do not have the ability to see beyond their own febrile imagination.

    Oh, really? πŸ™‚

    That term tends to fall on people that have no doubts in their minds, even in the absence of the tiniest shred of evidence, and particularly on those who actively make up ridiculous “evidence” to “prove” what they had no doubts about in the first place. For a true crackpot, the clumps are “evidence” of a life form growing on and eating the probe (and, or course, NASA is conspiring to cover it up, for all sorts of nebulous reasons). Then there are other, attenuated forms of crackpots, those that don’t dare to express fully their crackpotery for fear of being ridiculed.

    I love crackpot theories: they make great fiction, and I love fiction… as fiction. πŸ˜‰

    And then there are the scientists, who gather data, analise it, interpret it, and then come up with theories. Some would be wild and revolutionary, apparently similar to some of the crackpot lunacies, but the difference is that they will be based on solid data, at least until better data comes along to reinforce them or shred them to pieces.

    True scientists have all the doubts in the world about the existence of life on Mars. The environment seems to be pretty hostile to it, but then there is the intriguing detail, such as the presence of methane in the athmosphere, or the past abundance of fluwing water, that kind of stuff. That might indicate biological processes are or were possible. Might. Doubt.

  32. Jorge says:

    Errata: Athmosphere -» atmosphere; fluwing -» flowing…

    Lack of preview button strikes back. I don’t know why, but for some reason I spot mistakes much more efficiently in published posts than in the writing box. πŸ™

  33. Chris Coles says:


    you need to get hold of

    It takes all the hassle out of poking fun at others that poke the same fun at you.

    Points taken.



  34. Mags says:

    There’s a fungus amongst us !!

  35. Peter Wright says:

    I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but those spectacular images that we get from the Hubble telescope are largely color-enhanced composites created from a lot of boring digital data. If you folks are so intent on getting pretty pictures of Mars (or any other extraterrestrial objects), buy a damn calender!
    TD, the notion that “these same scientists” are engaging in some sort of conspiracy to assure job security is akin to saying that the people and institutions that are doing cancer research at the expense of “American taxpayers” are withholding cures for the same reason. Phoenix incorporates several instruments that may help to confirm if there is (or was) life on Mars. Unfortunately, a camera that takes pictures “humans can relate to” does next to nothing for this particular intent.
    I’m sure the folks at NASA would like to be able to offer a lot more flash and bling to the general public. They are, however, scientists, not advertising executives, and their priorities are collecting and interpreting information, not selling a product.

  36. Jorge says:

    Chris, thanks, but it won’t work: I’m not a IE creature.

    Still, there might be a similar plugin for my browser. I don’t like cluttering it too much, but that might be worth investigating.

  37. TD says:

    The colors of Mars – the seasonally changing dark areas – are subtle and interesting. At least that’s what astronomers who devoted decades to the planet said in scientific papers. The theory that it’s wind-blown sand on a lifeless planet is a theory, but just a theory. To not see anyone produce a time lapse sequence of true-color images of the seasonally changing dark areas over the last 50 years – one of the most fascinating dynamic processes in the solar system – is just impossible to believe. When you exclude the impossible, whatever else remains, however improbable, is where the truth is. (or something like that). But continue, if you like, with your praise of the status quo and ridicule of whoever asks for more.

  38. TD says:


    thanks. If you get a chance, go to the HiRise page and check this image:

    with all the wind-blown sand over hundreds of millions or billions of years, how could these troughs not fill up? To me it’s a mystery.

  39. David S says:

    Black and white (actually gray scale) gives you 4 times the resolution of color photos. Why??
    Because color photos require the use of red, yellow, blue and white (in separate pixels)

    You are correct about grayscale having higher possible resolution, however you don’t have the particulars right.

    Color images are generated using red, green, and blue pixels. Grayscale has 256 possible shades of gray available. RGB divides that by three. There is no white pixel. Black is all pixels off. So using three grayscale images would give you higher resolution, for the given element. But this is mostly for printing. Raw images have a much wider range. White is all three pixels on at once.

    Technically there’s no reason in this day and age that they can’t fit one of these probes with a high resolution RGB camera. Most of us have them, and these grayscale photos look of poorer quality than most cell phones!

    As far as bandwidth… we were able to send back live video from the moon. And that was almost 40 years ago!

  40. Chris Coles says:

    TD great image. If any of you had ever tried your hand at plastering you would see clear similarities between the plaster surface before trowelling smooth and that image of Mars with the trough. That surface is not solid, as TD says, sand blown over millions of years; it is so much like a wet plaster surface, it makes ones hair stand on end.

  41. Aodhhan says:


    You’re a victim of your own closed mind. Open it up, do your own study. It takes a long time to do this, but you’ll eventually get the correct answer for yourself.
    Not everything is theory; many things are proven even without direct visual evidence. If you rely only on what you see and know, then you are easily fooled; like an audience at a magic show.

  42. Richard says:

    I welcome our new alien overlords.

  43. Dave says:

    Looks like the guys in the studio lack attention to detail when applying planetary makeup to their Mars stage. This proves that the Mars landing is a hoax, just like the one 40 years ago.

  44. RR says:

    In other news, NASA plans first carwash for planet Mars.

  45. Brian says:

    What a bunch of ridiculous conjecture. Did any of you think of the fact that it is quite possible that the high res photos whether b/w or color are classified to some degree and therefor you are not allowed to see them? Just because they did not show up in one web article does not mean they do not exist. Not to mention the hi res color photos that have been posted everywhere. And to the person who mentioned Kodak Gold, first off that film is crap which is why NO professional photographer anywhere who is worth a damn uses it, secondly, do you want the lander to run over to photomat to get it developed? Maybe if you ask nicely it will pay for double prints and send you a set.

  46. Marvin says:

    Martians, please stop poo’ing on our lander.
    Really, have a little interplanetary respect.

  47. Pressman says:

    One word; Andromeda

  48. DJ says:

    Can somebody keep an eye on this and let us know when it’s time to PANIC??!!?!!

  49. Jorge says:

    Don’t panic.

    But do keep your towel handy.

  50. Joe says:

    The Hubble produces very nice color images… so why shouldn’t the lander?
    I’m very sceptical about these B/W images. They do not appear to be Hires either.

  51. Joe says:

    Ooops.. Spoke too soon. It appears this lander can, and has actually taken stereo color images. My bad.

  52. Yoo says:

    Most color images from the Hubble are probably false color images, anyways.

  53. Captiosus says:


    Almost 80% of the hubble images are true color images, taken with a big ass camera totaling some 1.5+ GIGApixels in its light receptor. this explains how the hubble can take extreme long range images such as the hubble deep field at such incredible clarity. But then again that 1.5 Gp camera cost a good quarter of a billion bucks when it went up w/ the hubble. If you think the images are false color, try looking at the Orion Nebula with a two foot wide reflector telescope and then compare it w/ a Hubble only image of the nebula’s heart and you will see the colors. Hell, if you can see it where you live, the Andromeda Galaxy is the furthest away thing in the night sky (almost some 2 million lightyrs away) that the unaided human eye can detect, and you notice it has a slight bluish color. look at an image taken by hubble: it has a slight bluish tint.

    Sorry if i was an ass, but just trying to defend the most kick ass telescope in human history XD

  54. Louis says:

    personally, I don’t think that those “clumps” found growing on the Phoenix Lander’s legs are lifeforms. It just seems quite absurd thinking that those things are little life forms, ‘coz there were no life forms ever found, right? No extraterrestrials have not been seen yet. But I am not discouraging others who are hoping those have life in it. There is a chance, of course. Good luck to what’s to happen next. πŸ˜€

  55. Yoo says:

    Hmm, for some reason I thought most images from Hubble were processed to show false colors because the natural color images were boring and unenlightening. Guess there are much fewer false color images than I thought.

  56. Jorge says:

    Well, as far as I know, the majority of Hubble images are in enhanced true color.

    On the other hand, most of those spectacular and colourful images Hubble brought us, stuff like the Pillars of Creation or the Cat’s Eye nebula, are in false colour.

  57. jerry says:

    Dont you know this is the red planet,heh heh.Ivebeen waiting long nigh to sample some of your earthling spacecraft whilst it oxidises in my icy paradise,heh heh Im slowly growing on the old bird’s legs,eating away the metal.just wait until the winter comes,I will have a veritable feast of your mars polar earth snack and dont try and send any robots or i will turn them into mars bars!

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