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Mars mission finds evidence of water

As the Phoenix Mars Lander sits patiently through the Martian winter, members of the UA team back on Earth are analyzing data and discovering just how likely it is that life exists on the red planet.


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Peter Smith, the principal investigator on the Mars mission, said several major discoveries were made once all the data was collected and analyzed by the team - the biggest of which was the discovery of ice.


""We went there because we were told that in the northern plains there was a lot of ice, but we never knew for sure that we would land on the ice,"" Smith said. ""Discovering the ice at our landing site was a big deal for us.""


The ice that was found by the Lander was about two or three inches below the ground, Smith said. Later in the mission, snow began to fall and the team found ice crystals.


""You've got ice on the top of the ground, ice underneath the ground ... sort of a sandwich, like a reverse Oreo cookie, and in between there's materials that form in liquid water,"" he said. ""So draw your own conclusion, but it's very likely that this has been a wet place in the past and perhaps habitable.""


The soil on Mars also has interesting chemicals in it that suggest the planet at one time was capable of sustaining life.


""There's calcium carbonate which is limestone and that forms in liquid water, so clearly it didn't form in ice ... somehow the soil was wet,"" Smith said. ""We think that perhaps 100,000 years ago it was wet enough that this might have been a habitable zone.""


According to Smith, in order for a planet to be habitable it must have water, nutrients and a food source.


""We found something called perchlorate which microbes on the earth sometimes use as a food source,"" he said. ""That was very unexpected and a big discovery.""


These important discoveries on Mars led the Phoenix Mars Lander team to receive several awards for their work.


Among others, the team received the 2009 John L. ""Jack"" Swigert Jr. Award for Space Exploration as well as The Cullum Geographical Medal from the American Geographical Society, which puts them in the same ranking as the explorers who discovered the North and South poles.


""They decided that Mars is part of geography now. ... They've expanded their definition,"" Smith said. ""It's a big award, it's very nice.""


Smith believes this recognition was exciting, but he was also pleased with the amount of public interest that was generated from the mission.


""One of the most pleasing things to me is how the public got excited about it,"" he said. ""I think we reached out to about 50 or 60 million people who were paying attention to this mission.""


As for future space exploration, Smith predicts that life will be found on Mars or another planet in 10 years.


""I think we're close to a breakthrough in this area ... 25 percent of Mars has this ice near the surface. You only have to have life in one tiny little place and you've got an inhabited planet,"" he said. ""Maybe we didn't find it, but it's there somewhere.""


Doug Archer, a fifth-year graduate student in planetary science worked on the Mars team as one of the science planners. He hopes future Mars missions will follow up on the Phoenix's discoveries.


""We didn't find life because we didn't have the ability to detect it, but there's nothing that we found on Mars, where Phoenix was anyway, that precludes the possibility of life being there,"" Archer said. ""I think it's still useful in the future to go back and look for life.""


John Moores, a 2008 graduate in planetary sciences, also worked as a science planner on the team and hopes future missions will pick up where Phoenix ended.


""We did leave a few things unanswered. It'd be nice to go back to the polar regions and go down into the icy layer get a good analysis of that icy layer,"" Moores said. ""There are all sorts of interesting questions all over the place.""


The next Mars mission is scheduled to launch in 2011 but as far as Phoenix is concerned, Smith hopes it survives the winter and regains enough solar energy to continue the mission.


""I'd like to think that the best is still ahead,"" he said. ""It's not dead yet. We've got all kinds of ideas.""


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