Lander Finds Ice on Mars, Scientists Say

A trench dug by the Phoenix lander reveals white ice beneath the surface soil of Mars. Scientists say they are sure it is frozen water and not salt.
A trench dug by the Phoenix lander reveals white ice beneath the surface soil of Mars. Scientists say they are sure it is frozen water and not salt. (Nasa Via Associated Press)
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By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Scientists with the Phoenix Mars mission yesterday declared for certain that there is ice on the Red Planet, putting them an essential step closer to answering the question that has driven three decades of Mars exploration and centuries of Earth-bound speculation: Could there have been life there?

Pictures beamed 170 million miles to Earth from the Phoenix lander atop Mars's northern polar plain erased any doubt about the presence of ice, they said.

But the evidence came in a roundabout way. Last Sunday, several dice-size solids were observed at the bottom of a trench that had been dug by Phoenix's robotic arm. On Thursday, they were gone.

The only reasonable explanation, the scientists said, is that the objects were pieces of ice that evaporated into the dry Martian atmosphere through a process called sublimation. And the presence of ice means that Mars might once have had liquid water, which is essential for life -- at least as it is known on Earth.

It is too soon to know whether the entire astrophysical community will accept the disappearing objects reported yesterday as proof, but the Phoenix researchers said they do not need any more convincing.

The rocket thrusters that slowed Phoenix to a soft landing revealed a white, hard substance in the ground beneath it -- and tantalizingly out of reach -- when the lander touched down on May 25. Similar white material was visible when the robotic arm began to dig below the top few inches of Martian soil.

One possibility was that it was salt of some sort. But ice was always the more likely explanation.

"Salt does not behave like that," said Mark Lemmon, a scientist at Texas A&M University who is in charge of Phoenix's stereo surface imager. "We found what we were looking for. This tells us we have water ice within reach of the arm."

Although Mars is much too cold now to have liquid water on its surface, scientists believe that may not have always been the case. Images from as far back as the Viking missions in the 1970s revealed channels and gullies that appear to have been carved by flowing liquid at some point in the planet's history.

The Mars Odyssey orbiter, using a device called a gamma ray spectrometer, proved in 2002 that huge quantities of hydrogen existed under the Martian topsoil. Although many compounds are high in hydrogen (including petroleum), the scientists believe the only one that could be there in such quantity is water ice, which consists of two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom.

"I don't know how you could have so much hydrogen under the surface, and something that disappears at just the temperature of ice, and have it not be ice," said Peter Smith, a physicist at the University of Arizona who is the principal investigator for the Phoenix mission.

The researchers chose Mars's northern polar plain as the craft's landing site specifically because they believed it would give them the best chance of finding ice. They now believe their hunch was correct.

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