Friday, June 20, 2008

Must Have Been Ice, But It's Over Now

NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander recently dug a trench on the Martian Landscape and captured photos of little chunks of white matter. Four days later, the mysterious stuff had disappeared. Scientists believe it was ice that went through the same process the snowman in your front yard does each winter; it evaporated.

Previously, there had been an ongoing debate as to whether or not the material was salt, but the disappearance confirmed that it must indeed be ice.

More ice surfaces are likely to be revealed as the robotic arm continues its work. Early on it refused to continue digging, even when it was told multiple times to explore a "polygon" region nearby the lander site. Halting is how the Phoenix is programmed to respond when it hits a hard surface beneath the soil.

Polygons are formed when permafrost (permanently frozen soil beneath the ground's surface) repeats a cycle of freezing and thawing, over many thousands of years. The result makes patterns comprised of cracks and wedges into polygon-like shapes in the ground.

The finds provides somewhat of a morale boost for researchers in charge of Phoenix, as previous digs yielded nothing but soil. The goal of the mission is to search the the polar region of Mars for evidence that this part of the red planet could support life.

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