LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Phoenix lander has scooped up its first, cup-sized sample of Martian dirt for analysis, kicking off the spacecraft’s primary science mission of searching for water or signs of life on the Red Planet.
The small sample includes a large Martian dirt clod crusted with white matter that intrigues NASA scientists because they believe it could be salt left behind by evaporated water or ice.
The soil was scraped from the surface of Mars by the lander’s robotic arm on Thursday and will be deposited into the craft’s Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) for study over the next week or so.
“This is a really important occasion for us,” Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith said at a briefing for reporters. “We are very curious whether the ice we think is just under the surface has melted and modified the soil.”
The analysis will allow scientists to determine how much water is in the soil and what minerals make up the dirt at the arctic circle of Mars, where Phoenix touched down on May 25.
“Salt would be very interesting because that’s what is left behind as water evaporates. That would be a very nice discovery, particularly if we knew exactly which salts they were,” Smith said.
“This looks like a really good sample for us. TEGA’s instruments are particularly sensitive to any water getting into the oven.”
The scientists are eager to find evidence of water on the surface of Mars because they are trying to determine if the Red Planet has ever supported life.
Phoenix’s first scoop of Martian dirt also marked the official start of its science phase, a moment scientists have been waiting for since long before the spacecraft took off from Earth 10 months ago on its 420-million-mile journey.
“When you hear about athletes preparing for the football season they practice one or two months and by the end of that they are really chomping at the bit,” said Matt Robinson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“Our pre-season has been about 5 years long so you can imagine that we are just raring to go get that actual first real sample.”
The lander has already returned the highest-resolution pictures ever taken of dust and sand on the surface of another planet. It used an optical microscope that showed particles as small as one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.
Phoenix’s robotic camera has also sent back images of what appears to be exposed ice under the lander. But that area — dubbed “Snow Queen” — cannot be analyzed because it is out of the reach of the scoop.
NASA has searched Mars for the past decade for signs of water and conditions that might have supported life. It has used a fleet of orbiters and a pair of rovers on the planet.
The detection of subsurface water on Mars in 2002 by the Odyssey spacecraft prompted the Phoenix mission.
Editing by Chris Wilson