August 1, 2008

UA’s Mars Team: ‘We Have Water’

By Stephanie Innes, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Aug. 1--The red planet really does have water.

The Phoenix Mars Mission led by the University of Arizona has made history by scientifically proving, for the first time, that water exists on a planet other than Earth.

"We have water," the UA's William V. Boynton, a lead scientist on the NASA mission, announced Thursday in Tucson.

"We've done most of the things we need to do for a fully successful mission," Boynton added. "It is a very big deal."

Scientists popped open champagne when they received confirmation Wednesday.

Though they have seen evidence of water ice before in images snapped by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, this week marks the first time they were able to "touch it and taste it," in Boynton's words.

That means scientists were able not just to see the water, but to put it into an instrument and confirm its properties.

"From my standpoint, it 'tastes' very fine," Boynton said.

By melting icy soil in a lab instrument informally known as the "shake-and-bake oven," the lander's robot confirmed that frozen water lurks below the Martian permafrost.

The proof came when the ice melted in the oven at 32 degrees -- the melting point of ice -- and released water molecules.

Verifying the water was always the mission's goal, along with figuring out whether Mars ever had -- or now has -- conditions that would support life.

Plans call for baking the soil at higher temperatures next week to sniff for carbon-based compounds.

The mission's solar-powered lander touched down on the red planet May 25. After arrival, it found what looked like ice in a hard patch underneath its landing site, and changes in a trench indicated some ice had vaporized when exposed to the sun.

Other Mars missions have gathered clues that the planet was once warmer and wetter than today's desert conditions.

Orbiting probes have found gullies and canals that were likely carved by liquid water.

Previous spacecraft on the surface found evidence of ancient water by studying minerals in rocks.

Phoenix, with the UA at the helm from "mission control" in Tucson, is the first to prove it is H2O.

Ultimately, the mission is expected to lay the groundwork for future Mars missions that will verify current or past life, even if mere microbes.

The mission had been having some trouble with its analysis of soil on Mars, noted Boynton, who leads the "oven" formally known as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA.

That's one of the reasons Wednesday's verification of water was so exciting -- and so serendipitous.

"We'd been trying to get an ice-rich sample into TEGA without any success. . . . We decided to give up for a while," Boynton said in an interview Thursday.

"We were aiming to get a dry sample from the trench and were very surprised to find ice mixed into it."

As the mission's principal investigator, the UA's Peter Smith, put it: "Mars is giving us some surprises. We're excited because surprises are where discoveries come from."

The verification of water this week comes with a bonus for the Phoenix Mars Mission.

NASA announced it is adding another $2 million to the project, which will take the total cost of the mission from $420 million to $422 million.

The extra funding will also allow the mission to extend another five weeks. It is now expected to last through Sept. 30.

"Phoenix is healthy, and the projections for solar power look good, so we want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters.

Phoenix's lifetime cannot be extended much more because it likely won't have enough power to survive the Martian winter.

DID YOU KNOW: Arizona's role in this week's finding is fitting, as it comes more than 100 years after Arizonan Percival Lowell searched for water on Mars.

Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian, built an observatory in Flagstaff primarily to study the red planet.

In his 1895 book "Mars," he described a network of canals on the planet's surface and hypothesized that intelligent beings created a massive irrigation system to carry water from polar caps to parched equatorial regions.

Orbiting spacecraft later proved him wrong, but the idea of intelligent life on Mars has captured the imagination of science-fiction writers and filmmakers for decades.

Source: Star archives


--Aug. 4, 2007: UA planetary scientists cheer the successful launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The mission features the UA-built Robotic Arm Camera, Stereo Surface Imager and Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. The 295-day wait begins. More than half of all nations' attempts to land on Mars have failed.

--May 25, 2008: Finishing its 422-million-mile journey, Phoenix survives the "seven minutes of terror" -- its dangerous, complex descent to the Mars surface -- and touches down perfectly, as champagne corks fly in Tucson. The lander captures unprecedented images of the fractured polar tundra -- signs pointing to a subsurface filled with ice.

--June 6, 2008: The lander delivers its first soil sample to the TEGA "oven," but it is apparently too clumpy to make it into the instrument. This comes more than a week after the UA team overcame a potentially crippling problem when a TEGA electrical short was reported.

--June 11, 2008: Scientists and engineers find success on their seventh try at getting the lander to shake some dirt into the tiny oven.

--June 19, 2008: UA scientists announce the lander exposed dice-sized bits of ice while digging a trench in the soil, and the ice vanished after exposure to the sun. "That is perfect evidence that it's ice. Salt can't do that," says the UA's Peter Smith.

--June 26, 2008: A historic chemistry test of Mars' arctic surface suggests the red planet is capable of supporting plants and microscopic life.

--July 11, 2008: Scientists worry that the lander's next baking test of soil and ice might be its last, because an electrical glitch continues to threaten the $420 million quest. They speed up the mission.

--July 26, 2008: More disappointment as most of an icy soil sample collected by the robotic arm apparently gets stuck in the scoop and will not fall into the oven to be heated.

--July 30, 2008: The UA team makes history by scientifically proving that water exists on a planet other than Earth.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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