The Mars Phoenix Lander may deserve a Nobel Prize by the time it’s through. Just a week after the robot explorer took the first pictures of water ice on the on Mars, NASA scientists have a new announcement: The Phoenix has analyzed a scoop of soil, and found that the Martian dirt has the necessary ingredients to support plant life. Researchers say the soil they tested is slightly alkaline, not harshly acidic as feared, and that it contains the mineral nutrients potassium, magnesium, and sodium.
“There’s nothing about it that would preclude life. In fact, it seems very friendly,” said mission scientist Samuel P. Kounaves of Tufts University. “We were flabbergasted.” Kounaves said that the soil was similar to what people would find in their back yards on Earth and that if organic material was added, “you could probably grow asparagus, but not strawberries” [The Washington Post].
The Phoenix is not equipped to directly search for microbial life on the planet. Instead it’s trying to determine whether the planet could have ever supported life, either in a more temperate epoch of the planet’s history, or possibly deep underground. This finding implies that life could indeed survive below the surface, where it would be protected from harmful ultraviolet rays and harsh oxidants that might accumulate on the top layer of soil [Scientific American].
While NASA‘s scientists are thrilled at the results–one colleague “jumped up and down as if he had the winning lottery ticket” [Reuters]–they hastened to offer the caveats and qualifications of responsible science. More testing is needed to confirm the results, they say, and testing one patch of soil near the Martian north pole doesn’t guarantee that the entire planet is covered with this hospitable soil. Still, the results suggest that if a manned expedition is ever sent to the Martian pole, astronauts could grow veggies in a protected greenhouse.
In a different experiment, a tiny oven heated another sample of the Martian soil to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, which released water vapor. “This soil clearly has interacted with water in the past,” said William V. Boynton of the University of Arizona, the lead scientist in this experiment. Dr. Boynton said he could not say when the liquid water was present or even where it was. The moisture might have come from dust particles that had blown there from other parts of Mars [The New York Times].
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute