Mars’ soil is like Antarctica’s

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander scraped the icy soil of the “Wonderland” area on June 26, confirming that subsurface soil and icy soil can be sampled at a single trench. Now, Phoenix scientists are assured they have a completed the soil-layer profile in the area in which “snow” was recently found.

Only recently NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander discovered the existence of ice on the Red Planet, and already several results have come in. One of the Phoenix mission goals was to study the history of Martian water in all its phases, and to determine if the Martian arctic soil could support life; this latest process brought the mission a step closer to meeting its goal. According to NASA’s tests results, it can be concluded that Martian soil is similar to Antarctic soil. “This soil appears to be a close analogue to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica,” says Sam Kounaves of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, leader of the “wet chemistry” portion of the Phoenix mission. 

The robotic arm on Phoenix has grated the ground to icy soil, therefore proving it could flatten the layer where soil meets ice; the result was exposure of the icy flat surface below the soil. The next step was scooping and scraping samples into Phoenix’s various analytical instruments. Further results have shown that the soil on Mars is salty and alkaline, as traces of magnesium, sodium, potassium, and chloride ions (constituents of salts) were found. According to Kounaves, it makes the soil quite basic. “The alkalinity of the soil at this location is definitely striking,” he said. Some scientists have remarked saying that these results may indicate the possibility of growing plants on the Red Planet in the future. 

Since the team hasn’t yet finished looking through all the results, several questions are yet to be answered; for instance, the scientists want to know whether some ice in the soil has been liquid in the past, at times when the Martian climate was warmer. Several tools will be used, including microscopy, electrochemistry, and a conductivity analyzer (MECA). Kounaves concludes and says: “The amazing thing about Mars is not that it’s an alien world, but that in many aspects, like mineralogy, it’s very much like Earth.” 

TFOT has previously covered NASA’s Phoenix development and landing. Other related TFOT stories include 3D high-quality photos of Mars, taken by ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter, and the discovery of an asteroid receding from the Earth, heading towards Mars.

For more information on Phoenix’s discovery of ice on Mars, see the Lander’s website.