Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mars: the search for water

There are two new two dispatches from the scientific front lines of the Martian quest. The first is that the initial sample examined in the Phoenix lander's onboard laboratory showed no water. Mission scientists were quick to point out that was not a surprise, though, because the sample sat for days on the lab's sifter while they tried to shake the clumpy stuff through, and any water would likely have vanished into the dry Martian atmosphere. The second is that scientists are still trying to figure out whether the whitish material exposed by the probe's sample collection scoop is ice or salt. One way this will be analyzed is to take repeated photographs and see whether the amount of material changes over time: salt should remain as is (absent one of those nasty Martian dust devils) while ice sublimates and should reveal itself by shrinkage.

Meanwhile, scientists are getting really cool microscopic images of the soil that did make it into the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) lab. As Scientific American describes it, "The high-resolution images particles of a range of different sizes, from bigger, black, glassy particles thought to have been forged in ancient volcanoes down to finer, more iron-rich grains that may have resulted from the glassy pieces grinding together."

COMMENT: It's pretty awesome to just step back a minute and think about what NASA is doing here. An array of complex instruments was launched into space on powerful rocket booster, traveled years and millions of miles, dropped through the atmosphere of another planet, landed perfectly, and is now operating with no significant problems to serve as the eyes and hands of human science. It's really quite something. We as a species are entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back.

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