White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life

By Craig Covault
August 1, 2008
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White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life

Copyright 2008 Aviation Week & Space Technology

The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the “potential for life” on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability–the “potential” for Mars to support life–at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say.

The data are much more complex than results related NASA’s July 31 announcement that Phoenix has confirmed the presence of water ice at the site.

International news media trumpeted the water ice confirmation, which was not a surprise to any of the Phoenix researchers. “They have discovered water on Mars for the third or fourth time,” one senior Mars scientists joked about the hubbub around the water ice announcement.

The other data not discussed openly yet are far more “provocative,” Phoenix officials say.

In fact, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science team for the MECA wet-chemistry instrument that made the findings was kept out of a July 31 news conference at the University of Arizona Phoenix control center. The goal was to prevent them from being asked any questions that could reveal information before NASA is ready to make an announcement, sources say.

Mars Phoenix Snow White Trench

The Bush Administration’s Presidential Science Advisor’s office, however, has been briefed on the new information that NASA hopes to release as early as mid August. It is possible an announcement would not come until September, to allow for additional analysis. That will depend upon the latest results still being analyzed from the spacecraft’s organic oven and soil chemistry laboratories.

Phoenix scientists have said from the start that neither the TEGA organic chemistry lab nor the MECA wet chemistry system could detect current or past life.

MECA’s two microscopes do, however, have the resolution to detect bacteria–which would be life. Sources, however, say the microscopes have not detected bacteria.

The Phoenix scoop was successful in delivery of a soil/ice mixture to TEGA this week after the material stuck in the scoop on two tries. The analysis of that sample is under way. The sample contains about 1% ice and 99% soil.

As expected, the instrument immediately detected hydrogen and oxygen atoms indicating water. Its electricity load also increased initially, a positive sign that water ice was being melted by the system.

The fact TEGA is starting to process some ice samples “had champagne corks popping” here, says William Boynton TEGA principal investigator from the University of Arizona. “We have tasted the water and it tastes great,” he said.

Before launch, some website literature by the TEGA team indicated it possibly could find organic evidence of “past” life. Both Boynton and Peter Smith, who heads the mission now, say that is not the case, although TEGA organic data could start major new arguments about life.

It has yet to find organics, but still has several sample ovens available to make such a discovery. An electrical short that earlier threatened TEGA operations has resolved itself, Boynton says.

News media cited the water ice finding as a major discovery, but it was totally expected by the science team. The different MECA data combined with TEGA is increasingly compelling as another piece in the puzzle of life.

The key is in the soil and water, and how the two behave together at that site on Mars, not the expected confirmation of water ice at this stage in the mission, Mars investigators told Aviation Week.

The MECA instrument, in its first of four wet chemistry runs a month ago, found soil chemistry that is “Earth-like” and capable of supporting life, researchers said then.

It is intriguing that MECA could have found anything more positive than that, but NASA and the University of Arizona are taking steps to prevent word from leaking out on the nature of the discovery made during MECA’s second soil test, in which water from Earth was automatically stirred with Martian soil.

Photo from University of Arizona and NASA/JPL: Yellow outlined robotic arm targets for new Phoenix Mars trenching show work areas planned for mission extension through at least September. Snow White area (blue rectangle at far right) is current ice sample zone.

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