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NASA update on Phoenix findings August 6, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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The internet is the perfect platform for rumours and conspiracy theories. Mars Phoenix mission team last weekend discovered first-hand just how powerful the internet rumour mill really is, when the story of a significant discovery regarding the “potential for life” on Mars spread like wildfire.  One significant story that sparked it, or at least threw some oil onto the flames, was this piece on Aviation Week.

A good overview of the sequence of events is reported by Emily Lakdawalla on the Planetary Society Blog, the ‘Phoenix flap’ (excellent name!).

So what did actually happen? One of Phoenix’ instrument suites, MECA (Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer), which analyses soil samples by adding water to it (this gives information about acidity of the soil, abundance of minerals etc.), picked up the signature of perchlorate.  This is a substance used as an oxidiser and on first inspection would seem like a substance that’s very hostile to life.

Yesterday, a press briefing was organised by NASA to set the record straight. The audio recording is here (a transcript will be added soon). I thought the NASA team did a good job explaining to the press that the briefing was in fact premature, as there are still many tests and checks going on to verify the consistency of the perchlorate detection between the different instruments on Phoenix, and to eliminate contamination from Earth sources or from the rocket fuel used in the Delta-2 rocket on which Phoenix was launched.

The scientists also pointed out that this merely “changes the equation” with regards to the habitability of Mars: here on Earth bacteria and organisms are known to thrive in perchlorate-rich environments, such as the Atacama desert. From studying extreme environments here on Earth scientists have really broadened the parameter space of ‘environments suitable to life’.

I’m sure it’ll be a while still before the dust from the Phoenix flap settles – but in the mean time I think all congrats to the Phoenix team. I think they’re doing a really good job with both the science and the press work.

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