Phoenix gets more time to drink Martian water!

By Phil Plait | July 31, 2008 12:27 pm

Edited to add: As usual, Emily has a ton of really gnarly info on Phoenix and this press conference. Why read my stuff about Mars when you can read hers?

Yay, great news: the Mars Phoenix lander crew just announced that the mission — originally designed to last 90 days and which is already two months in — will go on for an extra month, extended until at least the end of September 2008. They have enough power to last them for a while after summer, so it can continue to do cool science until its power runs out.

They’ll use this extra time to dig two new trenches, strategically located in lower spots near the fixed lander where wind brings in material and ice can persist for longer periods of time.

Also, they announced that they were able to get a sample of ice from the surface into the ovens! That means they can cook it and investigate the samples to learn about Martian chemistry. There wasn’t much ice in the sample, but enough to look at; it’ll be a while before they can get a full analysis of it.

And I hate to talk about this next bit, but I have to. There were some rumors floating around yesterday that NASA would announce that Phoenix confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars. This rumor made me laugh– we’ve known about this ice being water (and not, say, frozen CO2 or some other substance) for quite some time. What Phoenix can do is confirm this, but that’s basically just a further confirmation of something we already were pretty sure about. It was also claimed by one source that this would be the first confirmation of ice "beyond Earth", which is plain wrong: we have definite confirmation of water ice in comets, which has been known for years. We also have direct measurements of ice on and in Saturn’s moons Enceladus, Phoebe, and in the rings, too.

So yeah, there’s water ice on Mars. But the final irony is that the press conference didn’t even really talk about this, so the rumors are really just that: rumors.

I dislike rumors like this, because they tend to be wrong, and build up an excitement that is bound to disappoint when the real news comes out. And when they’re right — which is very, very rare — they take away from the actual announcement. But the Search for the Scoop (in this case, that’s literal since Phoenix uses a scoop to gather up the Martian samples) will sometimes take control.

But I won’t let this detract from the real news here: Phoenix will have more time to work on Mars. That means more time to look around, more time to scoop up the alien surface, and more time to extend our reach to other worlds. And that is no rumor. That’s scientific fact.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Science, Space

Comments (44)

  1. IBY

    You know, they always say that the probes they send will last such and such months, and then, they say the probes can last longer. They have too low of self esteem. :)

  2. Duane

    Do we know if there is enough water on Mars to support a semi-permanent (or permanent) colony? If so, does it matter where we put it? I imagine water would be easier to obtain near the poles, but energy requirements would necessitate a location closer to the equator.

  3. That’s good news. A few weeks ago I heard that Pheonix was in a bit of a tight spot. Do you how or whether that was resolved?

  4. Tom Marking

    Did anyone get to see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s segment on the Mars Phoenix lander on the latest episode of Science Now? I thought it was hilarious how some of the researchers were going goo-goo-gah-gah over the fact that TEGA had measured the pH of the soil to be something like 8.5. Apparently that is a big accomplishment at NASA these days.

    Oh my gosh! Mars has frozen water. Water implies life therefore it must have life! — Get real, it’s a quantum leap from the simple H2O molecule to something like a protein or nucleic acid. Here’s a suggestion for you NASA – why don’t you try flying an experiment that will actually tell you if these complex macromolecules exist instead of trying to detect something we already know is there (i.e., H2O).

    In the meantime when I read things like the following

    http://www.spacedaily.com/news/mars-life-03l.html

    I really wonder if NASA has any clue at all about what they are doing in Mars exploration. So they get positive results from the Labeled Release experiment on the Viking landers way back in 1976. The PI of that experiment thinks that they really discovered life. But they never try to duplicate that experiment or refine it after 30 years. Does that make any sense to anyone?

  5. Blu-Ray-Ven

    i guess then the saying “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” is a true metaphor for mars, and any place but earth. but nice to know its out there

  6. Great news Phil! I was just wondering about how durable Phoenix really is. So, let’s say that it operates into November, and then is shut down. Once summer hits on Mars again, is there any possibility of firing her up again. Maybe not enough to get the ovens baking and arms scooping, but at least another look see, and determine local weather effects at the landing site?

  7. KC

    I guess I’m tired. When I read that they’d have time to dig a couple of more trenches, I imagined it uncovering a Martian pop top.

  8. SLC

    In enumerating the evidence of ice in the Solar System, one should not forget the apparent thick layer of ice on the moon Europa which appears to cover a liquid ocean of water.

  9. Nathan Myers

    Not ironic. Again.

    The media obsession with water parrots NASA’s own. They must have done a focus group session and found that the motivation to fund for planetary probes is directly tied to the possibility of finding mildew.

  10. Sili

    Awesome! I really really hope Phoenix is gonna surprise us as much as the rovers and wake up, ready for action next Spring. I hope they at least leave her with a command along those lines when power runs out, rather than just dessert her completely when powering down.

  11. “it’s a quantum leap from the simple H2O molecule to something like a protein or nucleic acid”

    Tom,

    Technically, a “quantum leap” is a VERY small leap.

    I know the term is used in common parlance to mean something really big, but I like the consistency with the rest of physics.

    Please comply or you will be assimilated.

  12. The news that they got ice into the ovens is -HUGE- -HUGE- -HUGE- !!!

    When the soil samples failed to move through the screens a month ago I immediately thought it was full of ice crystals and too cohesive to sift through. I also thought that the ice would sublimate away in a couple sols and then fall through the screen. It looks like this then happened. I was not happy about being right, believe me!

    But now, we have ice in the ovens! W000T!!!
    Absolutely Hawsome!
    Rich

  13. Nathan Myers

    PsyberDave,

    A quantum leap can be big, small, or undetectable. Size is relative anyway; you must be, er, “smaller” than you’d like, yet exceed poor gorilla. The essence of a quantum is that there’s nothing in between. In audio, the difference between two resonant wavelengths is a quantum, and may easily be larger than the difference in size between yours and a gorilla’s. I hope that’s not “VERY small“.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Also, they announced that they were able to get a sample of ice from the surface into the ovens! That means they can cook it and investigate the samples to learn about Martian chemistry. There wasn’t much ice in the sample, but enough to look at; it’ll be a while before they can get a full analysis of it.

    Actually, it’s a bit better than that:

    Laboratory tests aboard NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander’s robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples.

    “We have water,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. “We’ve seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted.”

    That means that they can move forward with the minimum mission success criteria:

    Provide samples of the surface soil, and samples from two depths beneath the surface, to both TEGA and MECA. [...] Use TEGA to analyze at least 3 soil samples to create a profile of H2O (in the form of hydrated minerals, adsorbed water, or possibly ice at the deepest level) and mineral abundances near the surface. It shall also analyze an atmospheric sample in its mass spectrometer.

    AFAIU, one more TEGA sample to go to mission success!

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ Pieter Kok:

    A few weeks ago I heard that Pheonix was in a bit of a tight spot. Do you how or whether that was resolved?

    They have at least three problems with the TEGA:

    1) AFAIU, due to a ionizer ground short, they are now using the last filament for the mass spec.

    2) The TEGA doors aren’t opening correctly. Due to geometry, they have two more ovens that can be guaranteed to open at least one of the two doors fully. But they lucked out on this one, both doors opened fully for the first time.

    3) Due to a (intermittent?) oven high short, they moved to treat this TEGA analysis as the possibly last one. But it seems their morning chill test/cleaning heat was so uneventful so they moved this supposedly dry sample (> 48 h) into analysis anyway.

    I really wonder if NASA has any clue at all about what they are doing in Mars exploration. So they get positive results from the Labeled Release experiment on the Viking landers way back in 1976. The PI of that experiment thinks that they really discovered life. But they never try to duplicate that experiment or refine it after 30 years. Does that make any sense to anyone?

    It makes eminently sense, if you look up their current strategy, which is “follow the water”.

    The problem with looking for life is that there isn’t any unambiguous definition and/or test. Virus evolves, so are alive biologically as cellular parasites, but few persons allow for non-cellular and/or non-metabolizing life.

    The Viking test was assuming too much (oxygenating metabolism, or at least metabolism under oxidative conditions), and ended up inconclusive. But not only have we learned why it fails in Mars surface environments, but also learned better ways of looking for life traces.

    The current strategy is to identify liquid water (Phoenix tries to do that) and then check for complex organic compounds (the next rover, Mars Science Laboratory will do that, by way of systems resembling Phoenix TEGA and MECA systems.

  16. Brango

    Yesterday in of all places Starbucks, I overheard a YEC arguing with the guy behind him in line that the Phoenix Lander could not have found water simply because “the only place god put water was on Earth”. When he was asked where in the bible it said that, he mumbled something unintelligible and then triumphantly proclaimed “there just wouldn’t be any point in god putting water anywhere else!”

    At that point I couldn’t hold back my urges anymore, I asked “So what happens when we go to Mars ourselves and someone actually drinks this water?” To which he replied, “Oh trust me, that isn’t going to happen. If god had meant for us to go to Mars, he would have put a river there or something.”

    They took his order after that. Damn you, speedy service!

  17. Kullat Nunu

    Some Saturn’s big moons are basically giant ice balls… Not to mention Uranus and Neptune, who also are mostly ice–paradoxically very hot ice. Given that hydrogen and oxygen are among the most abundant chemical elements, you can expect to see a lot of water in solid form.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The essence of a quantum is that there’s nothing in between. In audio, the difference between two resonant wavelengths is a quantum,

    Except that classical resonant systems aren’t quantum systems, so the difference is classical (but discrete).

    Hmm, I always assumed quantum leaps referred to tunneling through a classical barrier potential, which is a unique quantum effect.

    The theory is that such a leap isn’t instantaneous or have information moving with velocities exceeding light speed, but that isn’t yet confirmed AFAIK. IIRC there was a recent press release on a new set up that they thought could be adapted to handle that measurement problem. (Also, in theory, there will be a (imaginary) probability density for the tunneling object. That should, arguably, count as “something” IMO.)

    If a “quantum leap” refers to moving between two energy states of a quantum system, a much more mundane affair, there is still something “in between”. There will be an energy difference, or the state change wouldn’t happen. That energy will be emitted into the environment as, say, photons. And where there is energy transfer, there is time, or you would have unphysical infinite power emission (classically, but also constraining the quantum physics) – transit times are not zero, I believe.

    But on the general question I agree that it is rather paradoxical to assume that a “quantum leap” would be large. It will be quantized, but what would that signify as a metaphor? This turn of phrase is skirting close to quantum woo, or at least ignorance of quantum mechanics, IMO. Wasn’t there an awful television series with that name that made the nerds throw a fit over this? But I’ve seen worse expressions.

  19. Tom Marking

    “The news that they got ice into the ovens is -HUGE- -HUGE- -HUGE- !!!”

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/phoenix/news/phoenix-20080731.html

    “…”Mars is giving us some surprises,” said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona. “We’re excited because surprises are where discoveries come from. One surprise is how the soil is behaving. The ice-rich layers stick to the scoop when poised in the sun above the deck, different from what we expected from all the Mars simulation testing we’ve done.”

    I think this is HUGE!, HUGE!, HUGE! news that the icy soil is sticking to the scoop. Surely it must imply that Mars once supported some type of aquatic life perhaps billions of years ago. I can’t wait for the next NASA mission to Jupiter where they will look for hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. That would be HUGE!, HUGE!, HUGE! if they could discover those chemicals in the atmosphere of Jupiter.
    :)

  20. Davidlpf

    Aren’t there big ice balls that orbit the sun and come real close to the sun then go out to outer reaches of solar system. When they are closer tho sun they have large tails of particles that always point away from the sun, what are they called wait a second oh COMETS.

  21. CanadianLeigh

    I don’t like extended probes.

  22. PG

    “So they get positive results from the Labeled Release experiment on the Viking landers way back in 1976. The PI of that experiment thinks that they really discovered life. But they never try to duplicate that experiment or refine it after 30 years. Does that make any sense to anyone?”

    We learned from Viking that we must crawl before we can run, just as Torbjörn Larsson, OM described. The Mars Science Lab (), to be launched in the next year, will be a huge rover with plenty of wet chemical experiments, in fact just the refinements of the Viking experiments you are calling for.

  23. Ryan

    This is pretty durned awesome. I work for the mission (though not in any kind of important capacity), and it has been an exciting time. I found out about this yesterday with a firm “no blogging” addendum added to it. After the issues that TEGA has had so far during the mission, it’s great to see this come through for them. It’s not too shabby for the rest of us, either.

  24. Frankie Ginnifer P.

    i love that Pheonix gets extended time on mars. but i can’t believe that they tried to say that it would be the first time that they found ice outside of earth. a 5th grader could tell you that there was ice in a comet. lets hope they don’t put those people on ‘Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader’.

  25. Anton P. Nym

    Viking 2: “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casa-, er, Mars?”

    Phoenix: “I came to Mars for the waters.”

    Viking 2: “Waters? What waters? Mars is a desert.”

    Phoenix: “Apparently you were misinformed.”

    (With apologies to Misters Rains (heh) and Bogart.

    — Steve

  26. StevoR

    The BadAstronomer, Dr Phil Plait asked :

    “Why read my stuff about Mars when you can read hers?” [Emily's]

    Well because this is my favourite blog, and the first place I go & because I like the way you write things up. :-)

    Great news albeit kind of old – I mean we did already know this pretty clearly didn’t we? We’ve thought or known there’s ice on Mars since well since we first spotted the polar ice caps really…

    Still fanatastic to hear how well Phoenix is doing & here’s hoping it keeps on going for ages longer. 8)

  27. StevoR

    IBY Said on July 31st, 2008 at 1:03 pm :
    “You know, they always say that the probes they send will last such and such months, and then, they say the probes can last longer. They have too low of self esteem.”

    Not really. I’d guess they make a conservative estimate of craft lifetime based on a worst case scenario & hope to beat it if things go better.

    That kind of makes sense.

    I’d rather they erred on the side of caution and started with low to realistic expectations that are exceeded – very dramatically exceeded in some cases – than begin by saying “oh this last for … oh like forever & ever & ever!” – only tohave craft X break down say twodyas afetr it lands instead.

    Pessimists at least have their surprises as pleasant ones – “well that went better than feared!” ;-)

    Whereas optimists who are wrong have nasty surprises – “Oh that didn’t as well as I hoped ..” :-(

    I prefer the former situation to the latter. ;-)

  28. StevoR

    … & whatever I expect Ialwayts sem toget gosh-fduerned dmag-nadbbed dong-busted typos which Iswear thecompuetr adds out of sheer electronic malice.. *Sigh* If onlywe could edit outrposts .. *Hint * Hint*

    Anyway,corrected for typos /spacing ad nauseam :

    I’d rather they erred on the side of caution and started with low to realistic expectations that are then exceeded – very dramatically exceeded in some cases (eg. the Mars Roivers) – than begin by saying “oh this will last for … oh like forever & ever & ever!” – Only to have craft X break down say two days after it lands instead.

  29. Dave Hall

    Anyone hear from Deepak here? Isn’t this just the sort of stuff he was asking for?

  30. This latest evidence for water on Mars may not be a big deal for those who deal with this subject on a daily basis, but for someone like me on the outside (or in a different part) of the scientific community, actual palpable evidence matters a lot.
    There’s a difference between being told the signs that water must be there are present, to being told actual water has been found.

  31. You know what bugs me about this press conference? Why the hell do the americans never seem to talk about contributions from other countries? They have talked about how Mars Odysee indicated the presence of water, but it was the european Mars Express i.e. the OMEGA experiment who proved this. Why was this not mentioned? Or did I miss this?

    It is really disappointing.

    I know that the europeans are low in PR but you know… The NASA scientists know about the eruopean results even if the public is not so much aware of that. And it is a little bit dishonest to not talk about european contributions at all when they contributed such a big deal to the Phoenix findings.

  32. amphiox

    Baby steps. When you’re first learning to walk, you have to take it slowly. We have only one example of a biosphere. Our knowledge of life boils down to a sample set of 1. It makes perfect sense for NASA to be focusing on the simple things like water first.

  33. Tom Marking

    “The Viking test was assuming too much (oxygenating metabolism, or at least metabolism under oxidative conditions), and ended up inconclusive. But not only have we learned why it fails in Mars surface environments, but also learned better ways of looking for life traces.”

    That’s absolutely false. The Viking experiments did not assume oxygen had anything to do with the metabolism of Martian life. For example, the Labeled Release experiment added a C-14 tagged liquid nutrient to Martian soil and then looked for radioactivity in the gases given off by the soil. It was not looking for oxidizing metabolism specifically nor did oxygen have to be involved in the chemical reactions at all. In fact, the exact details of the biological metabolism are completely irrelevant to LR as long as the C-14 is absorbed and then given off into the atmosphere. Read here for more details:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking_biological_experiments

  34. Tom Marking

    Now that’s real interesting. Tom Marking said “Your comment is awaiting moderation”. Oh, really? When did I say that and to whom? Phil, this new Discover blog layout has some funny stuff going on. Several times I’ve posted things that went in the bit bucket. Sometimes they even appeared briefly and then wound up in the bit bucket. Very strange behavior being emitted by this blogging software. It seems to be a pre-beta release.

  35. Paul A.

    Phoenix directly tasting and touching water on mars somehow impresses me much more than tons of indirect evidence though.

  36. Steve

    I have to agree with Paul. This is an extremely important step. No one has ever detected water directly on Mars. It has been deduced or indirectly shown to exist. Now it’s certain. What is even more impressive: this was the dry sample. Because the other two samples they tried to test were clumpy, probably due to water, they went to a drier sample. Speculating on this, it could mean water is more pervasive and easy to get to, a better case for any Mars base.

    And for those who had not heard, the reason they put the ice sample off was because the short problem had been resolved, although from what I’ve read no one knows exactly how.

  37. The Boss

    Dear Ryan,
    You’re fired.
    The Boss

  38. quasidog

    @Phil : “There were some rumors floating around yesterday that NASA would announce that Phoenix confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars. This rumor made me laugh– we’ve known about this ice being water (and not, say, frozen CO2 or some other substance) for quite some time. What Phoenix can do is confirm this, but that’s basically just a further confirmation of something we already were pretty sure about.”

    Being sure is one thing for someone ‘in the know’. For the general populous and the skeptics however, you can never have too much confirmation. More evidence removes more doubt from those with little knowledge on the subject.

    Your not asking me to have um .. faith … in scientists that a ‘pretty sure’, right ? More conclusive evidence … more ! :) jks

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    FWIW, catching up on old threads:

    @ Tom Marking:

    The Viking experiments did not assume oxygen had anything to do with the metabolism of Martian life.

    I said oxidative metabolism, not that it was based on oxygen as oxidative agent. The funny thing is that the description you point to is describing just such, as carbon-fixating photosynthesis.

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