“Almost Perfect” Samples are Scraped From Mars Surface For Analysis

Article written: 1 Jul , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

With the Phoenix Mars lander in full science-operation-swing, the robotic arm has just scraped an “almost perfect” mix of regolith and water ice for its next analysis. Using a blade on the scoop, the robotic arm carried out 50 scraping actions across the bottom of the enlarged “Snow White” trench that was excavated on June 17th (22 sols since Phoenix touched down). Today, on Sol 33 of the mission, Phoenix has been preparing little mounds of dirt ready to be scooped up and dropped into the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) so the constituent minerals and water can be analysed. Besides, Phoenix has just built the first ever mini-sand castles on the Martian surface!

On Sol 24 of the mission, only 24 sols after it landed on Mars, Phoenix found the first evidence of water ice on the Martian surface. Pictures taken four sols apart showed a white substance had sublimed into the tenuous Martian atmosphere at about the correct rate for water ice under those conditions. This was after a bumpy start when the clumpy regolith didn’t make it past the TEGA screen in a preliminary oven experiment. Then last week, Phoenix carried out a preliminary “wet-lab” test with the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument and found the mix of minerals in the Mars regolith and its pH levels had a striking resemblance with soils commonly found here on Earth. With all these groundbreaking discoveries mounting up, what can we expect next?

Well, today’s announcement suggests the next step is to thoroughly prepare small piles of samples scraped from the bottom of a trench called “Snow White” dug on Sol 22. Once this is complete, each sample (containing approximately two to four teaspoonfuls) can then be sprinkled into the TEGA instrument so thorough analysis can take place. The bottom of Snow White appears to be rich in water ice, so the scraping action will have created small particles of regolith and small ice crystals. Having encountered the clumpiness of regolith before, the mission scientists are keen to push ahead with some flawless experiments.

Having overviewed the small samples, agreeing that the piles were “almost perfect samples of the interface of ice and soil,” Phoenix has been sent commands to scoop up each pile of dirt and sprinkle them into the TEGA. The instrument will then bake and analyse the soil to assess its volatile ingredients, like water. The melting point of the water ice can also be assessed. Once the data has been transmitted back to Earth scientists can begin to study the constituents of the sub-surface regolith, gaining a detailed look into just how hospitable the Red Planet could be.

Keep making those little sand castles Phoenix, we’re watching you very closely

Source: Phoenix (University of Arizona)


18 Responses

  1. TD says

    I hope Phoenix finds organics and even life on Mars, but why do people get hung up over whether life evolved on Mars? When scientists look at an island, do they ask if life evolved there? no – they know life is there because physics moved it there – ocean currents, wind currents, whatever. Space is no different…but the physics may get more complicated. Life can be moved by solar radiation (Arrhenius, 1908), magnetospheric plasmoids (Dehel, 2006), or meteor impact ejecta (I’m not sure who said this first). Of course, life did originate somewhere….but that potentially took billions of years – not enough time for it to have evolved from rock on Earth before the first ancient signs of life appear. So does Mars have life? Of course. It’s too close to earth to not have life. Now Phoenix just has to find convincing evidence of it.

  2. Steve says

    TD,
    I would love to find life, and I can’t completely disagree with your statement. However, I don’t think that life on Mars exists strictly because of its local proximity to earth.

    Its true, organics likely travelled there through some form of medium, same as with earth, but with that being said, just because life / organic molecules travelled somewhere, doesn’t mean they necessarily survives in the new local environment it ends up on.

  3. tacitus says

    TD, your comparison of Mars with an island is flawed. We have a boatload evidence for life migrating from island to island, but we have none for life migrating from one planet to another. It’s all very well to say we know of methods by which life might be able get from planet to planet but we don’t know that it happened. We have no evidence whatsoever. It’s all just speculation at this point.

    That’s why Phoenix’s experiments are important. They may take us closer to finding real evidence that there is life somewhere other than Earth. And if we do find it then we can start to answer whether it came from Earth or evolved independently. That is most definitely something we should get hung up about!

  4. Aodhhan says

    Being “close” to earth is a pretty relative statement, and there is some pretty mean environment between the two planets. Earth’s moon is closer by far and it has no life at all. Don’t know what physics has to do with it, since the same rules of physics apply on earth, its moon and Mars.

    In all actuality, when scientists look at different areas of earth they do consider how life evolved there differently than other areas. Look at some of the strange evolutionary differences in animals found in Australia compared to North America, Europe, or Africa.

    Who says life started here? Look at it inversely. Is it possible Earth has life because of Mars or another transient body during the merging of our early galaxy with another? Did life begin independent of outside factors?

    There are a lot more questions to answer after we first prove whether or not life existed/exists away from our planet.

  5. Tom Dehel says

    I agree the theories that move life (in the form of simple microbes) through space have to be confirmed – but when you add the physics of microbial uplift and outflow due to several mechanisms, to the observations of signs of life appearing quickly on earth, to the fact that it still took bacteria about 2 billion years to evolve to even a more complex one celled creature…the conclusion appears obvious…..at least some simple microbes pass through space and survive….if they reach a planet with reasonable conditions, they take root. Has this been proved – I suppose not – but the prediction derived from this line of thinking is that Mars must have life….and that life will share the basic structure (RNA, DNA, whatever) of earth life. I imagine the credit should go to Dr. Svante Arrhenius for most of this over 100 years ago…and he already has a Nobel.

  6. R2K says

    “Earth’s moon is closer by far and it has no life at all.”

    But that is not due to the distance but the environment of the moon.

    Why ask about evolution of life on mars? That is a huge deal because it can give us a hint at how common life is around the universe. We have 1 sample so far, that is nice but not really good enough. Two samples in one solar system of life showing up from chemicals? That would be very telling. Three samples? (Europa, Ceres, etc.) That would be a good indication that life is an automatic part of stellar evolution.

  7. Darrrius says

    What do they mean by an “almost” perfect mix of soil. If its not a perfect mix then why are they using this as a sample?

    What would be the difference between an almost perfect, and a perfect sample?

  8. Al Hall says

    Because it is missing something in order for it to technically even be called “soil”..

  9. marcellus says

    I like Al Hall’s statement. We do need to send people to Mars.

    On the History Channel’s “The Universe” program, one scientist said, “You put me on the Tharsis plateau for a year and I’ll give you the keys to the planet.” You go girl!

    I think microbial life is very common in the universe.

  10. Sili says

    Actually we do say life evolves on islands. But I get your point.

    Still we know that the various lifeforms immigrated to those islands because we can see that it resembles those on nearby landmasses.

    Similarly we cannot say that life moved from Mars to Earth or vice versa without evidence that the lifeforms in the two place are similar. So we have to sequence the genome of Martians – and to do that we need to find them. And to do that we need to know if they’re even likely to ever have been – and if so where.

    Baby steps. Baby steps. Real life is not CSI.

  11. TD says

    I agree – and your’re right – I really meant “originate” instead of “evolve”. To compare the DNA and biochemical processes of Martian life with Earth life, we have to find it first…..I guess my point is, from several lines of reasoning, Mars should have life….so let’s really put in an effort to find it. The meager effort that has taken place to find life on Mars over 50 years is what makes one wonder if there’s any reason some folks don’t want to find it. This has got to be one of the most important questions of mankind….we shouldn’t have let the conflicting and ambiguous results from Viking stand this long.

    Good Luck Phoenix – at least find some organic compounds!

  12. Al Hall says

    Better yet, we really need to send people there..

  13. TD says

    So, this is a serious question – if there is, or likely is, microbial life on Mars, how do we approach human interaction with it? How long do we quarantine the returning person for? If the person gets sick – do we quarantine forever?

    How can we even begin to study this if we haven’t yet thoroughly examind Mars with rovers? A lot of folks on the various posts are very much in favor of manned exploration, which I can understand. But it does really seem like the men and women going to Mars would have to better prepared for encountering the life there, than just not knowing. A dozen rovers just slightly more capable than Spirit and Opportunity could be bounced into various regions, valleys, and caves….and look for life. Although it seems romantically adventurous, if we first discover life on Mars in person….that will be an real example of modern science letting us down. Slipher, Dollfus, Sinton and others showed the way – modern scientists need to follow the sighs of life they marked and get this discovery made!

    Good Luck Phoenix!

  14. alandee says

    I still can’t believe we don’t have live video from Mars and that Pheonix is stationary, really I think the arm and labs would be better on a rover .. why don’t they have a derigible mounted camera sussing out the next likely location ?
    If Phoenix doesn’t find anything organic there, does that mean there isn’t any ? Of course not, but waiting another couple of years to randomly pick the most likely spot based on some stratospheric piccys and a bit of guesswork doesn’t really cut it for me .. mind you if it finds anything other than just pure water it will be a mute point 🙂

    Go Phoenix, dig like you’ve never dug before! .. .. oh right ..

  15. Jael says

    A Reader’s Digest article i n November 1982, described a fascinating discovery by the researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center which confirmed the Bible’s account that every single element found in the human body exists within earth’s soil.

    Our Bible says, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (soul).” Genesis 2:7

    Mankind originated here on earth, not Mars.

  16. wizardd says

    Jael, remember that all planets are made from the same diskretion disk 😉

  17. Robert H. Pike says

    Let’s go ahead in time say, 20-30 years, and make some conjectures;
    -It’s been established life existed on Mars; and it wasn’t only bacteria!
    -it’s been confirmed that basic life forms can travel through space if well contained in meteorites, and are likely to have recolonized either from Mars to Earth or vice-versa.
    -we’ve found at least 50 other solar/star-planet systems with planets in the “Goldilocks” range of their sun/star, thus likely to support life.
    -we’ve started aiming our radio waves at these locations, and anticipate a reply in a few millenia.
    -we’ve even heard our first organized/intelligent radio/microwave transmission from a likely source – in space.

    Now what?
    Will we start spending more on NASA (someone PLEASE give them a better writer/publicist for their boring presentations!)
    Will that slow or speed up our position on Terraforming Mars?
    What will it say to organized Religion?

    Your answers will make you either a great science fiction writer or a sorry example of the limited imagination of Homo sapiens!.

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