Progress With Phoenix

Deborah Bass
by Deborah Bass

Since Phoenix landed in the northern hemisphere of Mars, the spacecraft has discovered:

1. Water ice near the surface of Mars! And it is really close to the surface, as the orbiting Odyssey spacecraft predicted, and Phoenix confirmed. This demonstrates science in action: data, hypothesis, confirmation of hypothesis.

2. The pH of Martian arctic soil is basic (or alkaline), rather than acidic. On Earth, soil pH is important because most food plants prefer an acidic or neutral soil to grow. Bacteria usually thrive in acidic soils as well. So what we found on Mars is not necessarily the best news for the search for life. One thing I think astrobiologists would agree upon, however, is that life is very adaptable and can exist in many extreme environments!

lumps of ice
These lumps of ice, in a trench nicknamed
“Dodo-Goldilocks,” sublimated, a process similar to
evaporation, over the course of four days. › Image and caption

3. Unlike the landing sites of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers near the planet’s equator, there are no soils with sulfur compounds, or sulfates, in this part of Mars. Spirit and Opportunity found that the soils at their landing sites were cemented together with sulfur compounds. Sulfates do not act as cementing chemicals where Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic.

4. The soil grains Phoenix found are a mixture of angular and rounded particles, with a myriad of colors from rust to white to black. They show degrees of weathering and different chemical compositions.

5. There are high level clouds and ground fogs every night, and the general weather patterns are repeatable.

6. A chemical called perchlorate appears to be prevalent in the soil. On Earth, perchlorate forms in arid areas where there is very little rainfall. The team is still working to understand how perchlorate affects whether life could have existed in this region on Mars.

What does all of this mean? Well for starters, Mars has a diverse geology and geochemistry, much like Earth. Making generalizations about Mars planetwide is probably not the right approach, because of the planet’s diversity. What does it all mean for the bigger picture? Ah, that’s where the difficult science comes in. This takes time. Many members of the science team expect to have their findings ready by December, to coincide with a big science conference in San Francisco. So stay tuned!


    10 Responses to “Progress With Phoenix”

  1. Steve O'Brien Says:
    September 20th, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Dear Ms. Bass,
    I was browsing the images on the Phoenix site.
    Specifically image,
    On the right hand side, in the center is something that looks like a metal spring that is partially buried in the soil? Can someone tell me what it is? Natural? Fell of the Phoenix? Other?
    Steve O’Brien
    Audubon, PA
    ps. great job on the Mars mission

    Bass says:

    Good eyes! That is indeed a man-made part of the spacecraft that ended up disconnecting from the spacecraft after landing.

    When anything untoward happens on the mission, either a human error or a mechanical error, it is documented and tracked. The team takes very seriously any problems that are encountered during the mission. The paperwork remains open until a reasonable, logical explanation is established and then tested to see if it is repeatable on a ground simulator. Then any changes to the system are made to ensure the problem does not recur.

    In this case, the team felt pretty strongly that this was a portion of the release mechanism of the “biobarrier” — the protective covering for the robotic arm that was released shortly after landing. The Phoenix operations team took some diagnostic pictures of the biobarrier using the Surface Stereo Imager camera. They agreed after examination of the images and also of the hardware “doubles” we have back on Earth that that piece is a spring that came from one of the release locks of the biobarrier. The team was surprised to see this, because Earth-based testing of these locks was carefully executed to ensure that the locks would behave properly. Also, the pictures (and subsequent use of the robotic arm) show definite proof that the barrier deployed properly after landing, rather than prematurely during cruise or entry to the Martian atmosphere.

  2. Derek Says:
    September 22nd, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    Steve: I think those springs happen with a lot of missions when explosive bolts release either to detach a lander from something or whatever else. I am sure it is intentional and probably meant to release something or another, though I can’t think of what at the moment…. biofilm maybe?

  3. Roy Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    You guys really know how to pull the wool! It’s no wonder the world is starting to doubt the words coming out of NSAS, cover ups and non-disclosure of the truth just treat us like a bunch of mushrooms. If that was ice that you found, it would have been such fantasticly wonderful news and the effort any scientist would have done next is start digging some more. How come you didn’t? Just two or three pictures and then you moved on to concentrate somewhere else.
    It looks much like Sodium chloride to me. Come on, cut out the bull.

  4. Roy Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    I honestly can not understand how you guys can think that a water molecule and rise from the surface of the planet and then float into outer space. This is imposable, because the gravitational pull on that molecule will not allow that to happen. The only way it can happen is if it was forced out by an explosion.
    Oh by the way. The scar that made Mars mariner valley was an enormous lightening bolt from Venus, as Venus came into our solar system about 12,000 years ago, it passed very closely to Mars and it was packed full of electricity just like a comet. Its plasma tail struck Mars and downloaded an enormuos amount of electrons (Electricity) Then Earth was next, it got struck too. Come on, look at the pictures! Water erosion? I think not. Splitting crust? dream on!
    Now start looking at an atom which is the creater of gravity because of the electrons spinning around it. If there are lots of electrons around it, then the gravity effect is higher, if there are no electrons, then there is no gravity effect. Electrons create magnatisum and magnatisum is gravity! The Egyptians know this and used it to move the huge stones to build those wonderful Pyramids and they showed us how they did it by the picture carvings on the walls. Its not a lamp! Its a captured ‘electric eel’ that can drain all the electrons from its enviroment ( Water) to shock its prey. God is so clever don’t you think?

  5. Stefan Says:
    November 5th, 2008 at 10:31 am


    I’m not really sure you can answer this question because it concerns spacecraft design, but here goes. Why do we spend hundreds of millions on interplanetary craft and then rely on solar panels to keep them operating. It seems very sad to have a craft on the surface and watch it die from lack of electricity. Look how much we’ve continued to learn from the Voyager craft well after their primary missions were over because, they continued to have the power to send data home. NASA should really rethink putting some type of long lasting power generation capabilities on these crafts.

  6. paul aldridge Says:
    November 18th, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    now that we are see what i would call life itseft, ice and small cimate forming we should take this data and find a small place that is the same, and see if certain desert plant can servive remember life finds a way.

  7. Bernard Johnson Says:
    November 7th, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    What are the white lines at the bottom of Victoria Crater ? Ice ?

    JPL Media Relations responds:
    Wind-blown sand in ripples or small dunes.

  8. Bernard Johnson Says:
    November 7th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Now, if there’s ice on Mars, below the surface, but only traces of oxygen in its atmosphere, would it be possible to grow anaerobic bacteria near the ice that would digest the CO2 of the atmosphere pumped to where the ice is to give O2 plus C, and then return the O2 to the atmosphere ? If possible, then by devising a self replicating CO2 decaying cell, and implanting such a cell in Mars’ underground, eventually its atmosphere would become breathable for humans. Unrealistic ?

    JPL Media Relations responds:
    This and other terraforming ideas for Mars are fun to consider. Learning more than we yet know about Mars, especially whether Mars already has its own microbial life, will be necessary before doing full assessments of such proposals. Any decisions about whether to intentionally alter the Martian environment would likely include considerations beyond the science of predicting the effects.

  9. zhoujie Says:
    January 8th, 2011 at 9:35 am

    hello,I want to know how to optimization interplanetary Trajectory Correction Maneuver(TCM)in cruse stage?can use Genetic Algorithm to optimization?

  10. Moreman Says:
    January 22nd, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I like your blog, can i become a member of your blog.

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