LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander has sent back the first-ever image of a speck of red Martian dust taken through an atomic force microscope, shown at a higher magnification than anything ever seen from another planet.
The dust particle is about one micrometer — or one millionth of a meter — across and is representative of the dust that cloaks Mars, producing the planet’s distinctive red soil and coloring its sky pink, NASA said.
“This is the first picture of a clay-sized particle on Mars, and the size agrees with predictions from the colors seen in sunsets on the Red Planet,” said Phoenix co-investigator Urs Staufer of the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, who leads a Swiss consortium that made the lander’s microscope.
Phoenix has been exploring the Martian arctic circle since May 25 and has already provided definitive proof that ice and water exist on Earth’s planetary neighbor.
It is the latest NASA spacecraft sent to Mars as the space agency tries to determine if life, even in microbial form, exists or ever existed there.
The new pictures were taken using Phoenix’s on-board atomic force microscope, which maps the particles in three dimensions and can detail shapes as small as 1/1000th the width of a human hair — or 100 times greater magnification than the lander’s optical microscope.
Until now, the spacecraft’s optical microscope had held the record for producing the most highly magnified images from another planet.
“This is proof of the microscope’s potential,” Staufer said. “We are now ready to start doing scientific experiments that will add a new dimension to measurements being made by other Phoenix lander instruments.”
Earlier this month, NASA said Phoenix had made the surprise discovery of a sometimes toxic chemical, perchlorate, on the surface of Mars.
Scientists were working to confirm the presence of the chemical and rule out contamination by the spacecraft.
The agency has extended the Phoenix mission by five weeks, adding about $2 million to the $420 million cost of landing Phoenix on Mars for what was a scheduled three-month mission.
Editing by Eric Beech