NASA Confirms Ice On Mars

Bloomberg: The existence of ice on Mars was confirmed today by NASA scientists, the first time frozen water has been sampled on another planet. Water in liquid form is an essential ingredient for life.

Whitish, dice-sized chunks, which were dug from the rocky red soil and warmed in the sun, vanished four days after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration‘s Phoenix probe dug them up June 15. They confirm what NASA satellites have suggested for years: Frozen water exists several centimeters beneath Mars’s surface.

Scientists believe ice exists on planets including Pluto, though Phoenix is the first probe to confirm it on the ground. The survey is part of NASA’s theme in Mars exploration: follow the water.

“We’ve hit what we’re looking for,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station and co-investigator on the NASA project. “The job now is to find out what’s mixed in with the ice.” He spoke at a press conference in Tucson, Arizona.

The Phoenix’s robotic arm also hit a hard surface yesterday while digging in a different spot, raising scientists’ hopes that they might uncover a larger ice layer to sample, NASA said.

“When I look over this flat plain of rock and dirt, it’s amazing what we’re looking at,” said principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, which is co- managing the project. “If you got a giant broom and swept if off, it’s a big ice sheet.”

Ice Below Surface?

NASA satellites suggest about a quarter of Mars has ice beneath the surface, primarily at the polar regions.

The agency’s plan is to gather up ice and dirt, then deliver it to the Phoenix’s airtight ovens. The matchbox-size ovens will then bake the sample.

On Mars, the boiling point of water is just 4 degrees Celsius. Under the planet’s faint atmosphere, the water will quickly vaporize, Smith said.

Before it does, the probe will analyze the samples for any long-chain carbon molecules such as amino acids, the building blocks of life.

“That’s what you need to have for a habitable zone on Mars,” Smith said.

The University of Arizona team ruled out the possibility that the material might be dry ice or salt.

Salt wouldn’t vaporize, and dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide, exists at much cooler temperatures than found at the Phoenix landing site.

The ground temperature at Phoenix’s location at this time of year falls to as cold as minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees Celsius) at night and can warm up to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.

The U.S. has declared the planet NASA’s ultimate destination in the agency’s newest effort, the Constellation program.

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