Skip to main content

Mars Lander Detects Snow and Minerals

If you haven't heard already, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian Clouds. Unfortunately Phoenix never got to test its robotic arm snowman building abilities; the snow vaporized before it could reach the ground.

Two minerals were also discovered in soil samples scooped up by Phoenix, calcium carbonate (the stuff chalk is made out of) and clays. The findings are importance because liquid water is needed to create both substances, suggesting that the red planet was once capable of sustaining life.

Phoenix's on-board instruments, the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) were used to identify the minerals. The high-temperature release of carbon dioxide from the soil sample was matched by TEGA to a temperature known to decompose calcium carbonate and release carbon dioxide gas.

Calcium carbonate acts as a natural buffer, and a solution buffered by calcium carbonate contains a specific concentration of calcium. MECA provided additional evidence by determining that the measured concentration of calcium matched exactly with expected values.

Evidence from a TEGA oven, specifically the high temperatures required to release water vapor from the clay soil indicate that the clays may be phyllosilicates, sheet-like structures very common on earth.

Phoenix is already working over time. NASA stretched the originally three month mission to the end of this year, if the spacecraft can handle it. The coming fall and winter months mean less sunlight, and so less power for its solar panels. In addition, communications between Phoenix and NASA ground control will be blocked briefly in November, when the sun is between Earth and Mars.


Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?