Scientist Smackdown: Did Mars Phoenix Find Liquid Water?

By Eliza Strickland | March 17, 2009 1:13 pm

Mars waterThe Mars Phoenix Lander conked out in November, ending the active mission of the robotic scientist, but the results of its five months of research on Martian geology are still coming in. In a late-breaking update, some Phoenix scientists now declare that they spotted several drops of liquid salt water on the lander’s legs; this would be the first time liquid water has been detected and photographed beyond Earth.

The researcher who proposed the hypothesis, Nilton Renno, was careful to say, “This is not a proof.” But he added: “I think the evidence is overwhelming. It’s not circumstantial evidence” [The New York Times]. Liquid water would boost the possibility that microbial life could survive beneath the Martian surface.

Renno bases his claim on images that show several blobs on the lander’s legs that changed between snapshots, seeming to merge and grow in size. The dramatic assertion has divided the Phoenix’s science team, with some researchers arguing that the low-resolution pictures actually show nothing more than clumps of frost. “It’s highly unlikely that [liquid water is] the explanation,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory…. “It’s just water vapor moving around. It’s an ordinary, unexciting explanation” [AP].

Phoenix was not expected to detect liquid water where it landed near the Martian north pole, as temperatures never went above -15 degrees Fahrenheit during its mission, and any ice that was exposed to the atmosphere was expected to sublimate, transforming directly from ice to water vapor. But the liquid water faction proposes that perchlorate salts, discovered in the Martian dirt by Phoenix’s wet chemistry lab, were concentrated enough in a patch at the spacecraft’s landing site that they could lower the freezing point of the water ice, causing it to melt into a salty brine (this is the same phenomenon that causes sidewalk salt to melt down snow and ice in the winter) []. Renno thinks that there may be pockets of liquid brine just below the Martian surface, and that one splashed up onto the lander leg when Phoenix landed.

With the scientists squabbling, Peter H. Smith, the mission’s principal investigator, is left to mediate the disagreement. He wonders whether the material, splashed up and possibly transformed by the heat and spray of chemicals from the thrusters when Phoenix landed, tells much or anything at all about the conditions on Mars [The New York Times]. The liquid water hypothesis will presented–and argued over–later this month at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference meeting in Houston.

Related Content:
80beats: RIP Mars Phoenix Lander
80beats: Martian Chemical May Put Slight Doubt on Possibility of Life
80beats: Mars Phoenix Lander Gets Its First Taste of Martian Ice
80beats: It’s Official: There Is Ice on Mars

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

  • Mark

    Indeed, if even microbial life is ever found on Mars, which I suspect will NOT be the case, it will essentially shut off any chance for colonization. Squabbling about whether we end up contaminating Mars with our own microbes would end up paralyzing humanity.

  • HLR

    If so much money wasn’t spent in the military complex machine, we could of been at Mars 20 years ago getting hands on experience and would have learned what Mars would already be like geologically.

  • Aldo

    Mark, if we were ever in a situation where we were even considering ‘colonizing’ Mars, then I doubt we would be very concerned over errant sneezes on the Martian surface.

    Other way around, maybe.

    In any case, this is big news. Hope to see it picked up by big agencies soon.

  • Maz

    what a peculiar thing.. so, how many people think that we have discovered water on mars / moon .. what is the (BS) explanations for ‘discovering water’ on mars / moon that NASA gives us, seeing that NASA would be the only ‘authority’ considered by society ‘credible’ enough to ‘keep us informed’ of our oh-so amazing discoveries after all arent these citizens paying ‘taxes’ to send these goofy rovers and rocket ships up into space?

    it’s not the secrecy isn’t what gets to me it’s the sheer ignorance of so many people out there who seem to be incapable of critical thinking.. Let alone ‘questioning’ – reality, identity, truth there is nothing more valuable than one’s own god-self-connection..

  • Maz

    oh and by the way, NASA is just a decoy to keep the media/masses/public attention occupied. Of course, there’s a secret space program, probably connected to the NSA / CSS (central security service)

    There is a lot going on, so many levels to it all.. essentially there’s nothing to fear. We should really, not be afraid to stand up, and we should stand up, as a humanity, for what is right, and we know in our hearts, as human beings.
    We are not alone, our ancient ancestors, and forces so pure and loving, are awaiting our emergence. We must meet each other half way – keep your promise to me, i’ll keep mine to yours. We are one family.

    Just do some research if you really want to take this seriously, because it is a big deal. And things are going down, this is it, We are not going to be able to continue to play pretend for much longer, people are waking up! And we are beings who have such a divine profound power to love.. to be love. Its not even a question of what’s going to happen or how we are going to survive, don’t let all that fear-propaganda get to you. We are exactly where we ought to be, & things are working in the divine plan WE are in full control & what we empower, what we create, what we give our attention – all our free will, our responsibilities.

  • bob

    hello i’m in space

  • HereComesEverybody

    Been smokin a little DMT there Maz?

  • Chuck

    Maz. You’re an azzh**e

  • Deek

    Wow…I thought people like maz were just on tv…


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