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Remote Sensing

Close-up shows Martian soil sample

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander performed its first wet chemistry experiment on Martian soil flawlessly yesterday, returning a wealth of data that for Phoenix scientists was like winning the lottery.

"We are awash in chemistry data," said Michael Hecht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument on Phoenix. "We're trying to understand what is the chemistry of wet soil on Mars, what's dissolved in it, how acidic or alkaline it is. With the results we received from Phoenix yesterday, we could begin to tell what aspects of the soil might support life."

"This is the first wet-chemical analysis ever done on Mars or any planet, other than Earth," said Phoenix co-investigator Sam Kounaves of Tufts University, science lead for the wet chemistry investigation.

"This soil appears to be a close analog to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica," Kouvanes said. "The alkalinity of the soil at this location is definitely striking. At this specific location, one-inch into the surface layer, the soil is very basic, with a pH of between eight and nine. We also found a variety of components of salts that we haven't had time to analyze and identify yet, but that include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride."

Kounaves said we have a lot in common with our nearest solar-system neighbor. "Over time, I've come to the conclusion that the amazing thing about Mars is not that it's an alien world, but that in many aspects, like mineralogy, it's very much like Earth."

Mars soil sample. Click for animation.

This pan and zoom animation shows a microscopic view of fine-grained material at the tip of the Robotic Arm scoop as seen by the Robotic Arm Camera (RAC) aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander on June 20, 2008, the 26th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. RAC scientists took this image at a resolution of 30 microns by rotating the scoop to within 11 millimeters of the camera's front lens and refocusing the camera to macro focus.

The image shows small clumps of fine, fluffy, red soil particles collected in a sample called 'Rosy Red.' The sample was dug from the trench named 'Snow White' in the area called 'Wonderland.' Some of the Rosy Red sample was delivered to Phoenix's Optical Microscope and Wet Chemistry Laboratory for analysis. The RAC provides its own illumination, so the color seen in RAC images is color as seen on Earth, not color as it would appear on Mars.

The image behind the RAC animation, taken by Phoenix's Surface Stereo Imager also on Sol 26, provides context. RAC Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute Surface Stereo Imager Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University.