Stories tagged life on Mars

Phoenix lander dig zone
Phoenix lander dig zoneCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University
Rumors are circulating that NASA's Phoenix Lander team has held briefings with the White House regarding some sort of forthcoming big announcement. It's unclear whether any briefings actually took place, but some folks wonder if NASA is hiding something. It could be the space agency is just doing their usual pre-hype of an upcoming announcement. Whatever the case, you can join in the speculation by going here and here or even here. Or you can listen to today's Phoenix Media Telecon and see if you can get some clues of what's happening.


Footprint on Mars?: Probably not.
Footprint on Mars?: Probably not.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
When this image first appeared on computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, scientists there were head-over-heels about the possibility that the Phoenix lander that settled on Mars last week had finally discovered tangible evidence of the Abominable Snowman. They even named it Yeti after the legendary Himalayan creature.

Frozen water on Mars?: Close-up of the "Snow Queen" feature discovered under the Phoenix lander has the appearance of frozen water.
Frozen water on Mars?: Close-up of the "Snow Queen" feature discovered under the Phoenix lander has the appearance of frozen water.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute
But their excitement soon turned to disappointment when they realized the marking was just a test scraping made by the Mars lander's robotic arm. All was not lost however. Their emotional rollercoaster was soon headed upward again as they discovered that the lander's descent engines had blown away the topsoil and uncovered a large patch of ice right beneath the spacecraft. Exactly what it was sent there to find!

Scientist are hopeful the ice extends into the region the lander will be sampling in the coming days. They may even hope to find evidence of Elvis, but personally I think they should lower their expectations and stick to searching for other, less iconic, signs of life on the planet.

Want to read more about all this heartache and serendipity? Then go here and here .


Phoenix lander footpad on Mars
Phoenix lander footpad on MarsCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The Phoenix Mars Lander set down successfully last night (6:53 CDT) near the planet’s arctic area in a region called Vastitas Borealis. On Earth, it would be similar to landing in the upper Northwest Territories of Canada.

Unlike the two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, the Phoenix is not mobile, and will spend the next four or five months stuck in one spot analyzing soil and ice samples scooped deep from within the Martian permafrost using a robotic arm developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On board instruments will analyze the samples in search of answers to questions about the affects of polar dynamics on Martian climate, the history of water at the landing site, and whether the Martian arctic region is suitable to support life.

In the coming months, as the sun disappears beneath the horizon and the Martian winter sets in, the Phoenix will shut down operations and end its mission. The loss of solar heat in the atmosphere will also create a frost cover that will expand out from the polar region and eventually bury the Phoenix lander in ice.

NASA Phoenix site
University of Arizona Phoenix Mission site


Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.
Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.Courtesy NASA
There’s nothing quite as deflating, figuratively, as a getting a flat tire. And what about if you’re a space rover on Mars, where there’s no shop to go to get your tire fixed?

That’s what NASA’s Spirit Mars rover has been dealing with since its right front tire went bad nearly two years ago. It didn’t go flat, but it’s quit turning forcing NASA to move the rover around in reverse ever since, trailing the stuck wheel behind.

But nearly a year later, that astronomic misfortune has led to an interesting discovery. Ruts carved by the bad wheel last May churned up a bright spot in the rover’s wake.

Rover guiders turned the craft back to the colorful streak for a closer look and discovered that the rock contains high levels of silica. Upon further investigation, however, another nearby rock cracked open that was jam-packed with silica.

You’re wondering what’s the big deal?

Well, on Earth high levels of silica occur only in two places: hot springs or fumaroles, which are environments near volcanoes where acidic steam rises through cracks in the ground. In each of those environments on Earth, water is present and the area is teeming with life forms.

NASA Mars researchers are terming the discovery, made through these very accidental means, as one of the biggest breakthroughs to discovering life forms could have existed on the Red Planet.

By the way, if the bad wheel isn’t enough of a problem for Spirit, it’s also been through a bad dust storm which has coated much of its solar panels with grit. Because of that, it’s only operating at about 30 percent power and rover operators will soon be driving it up a higher altitude for a rest and to have the panels wind-cleaned.