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NASA space probe melts Martian ice -

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NASA space probe melts Martian ice

The World Today - Friday, 1 August , 2008 12:30:00

Reporter: Jennifer Macey

ELEANOR HALL: Scientists have long known that Mars is covered by a sheet of ice - but now for the
first time NASA's space probe on the planet has "touched and tasted" water.

The Phoenix Mars Lander identified a small amount of water in a soil sample collected from just
below the Martian surface. NASA scientists say they can now search for evidence of life on the red
planet, as Jennifer Macey reports.

JENNIFER MACEY: Champagne corks were popping at NASA again this morning now that the Phoenix
spacecraft has found water on Mars after spending some 76 days on the surface of the planet looking
for signs of life.

Sara Hammond is the public affairs manager for the Phoenix Mars Mission in Tuscon Arizona.

SARA HAMMOND: We knew from orbiters that there was a sheet of ice covering about 25 per cent of
Mars and we are actually sitting on it. We have reached down and touched it. We've tasted it and
we've smelled it. So that is a terrific for our mission to have accomplished.

JENNIFER MACEY: The Phoenix spacecraft successfully landed on Mars's polar cap in June after
travelling for nine months from Earth.

The Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith says since then the lander has been taking pictures
of the planet and digging below the surface.

PETER SMITH: We landed right on top of water ice and the thrusters spread the soil away and
revealed ice right underneath our lander. This was unexpected. Look at this. At the bottom, we now
see a dark patch after scraping and that dark patch, we consider to be ice.

JENNIFER MACEY: However the Phoenix has failed to identify any ice or water samples in the soil
it's collected until now.

The soil samples are cooked in an oven on the deck of the Phoenix Lander - which has the more
technical name of the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyser.

William Boynton is professor planetary sciences at the University of Arizona and the scientist in
charge of the particular instrument.

WILLIAM BOYNTON: It was difficult because the ice was very, very hard so we actually had a little
drill-like device, it is actually called a rasp, and we were rasping the sample and kind of
grinding up the ice into ice powder.

We got a very good sample and we tried to deliver it to TEGA and it wouldn't fall out of the scoop
and when they tilted the scoop over for the sample to pour out, it just stuck there. It was almost
like it had refrozen right into the scoop which is very much a surprise to us.

JENNIFER MACEY: Mars is a cold desert planet with no liquid water on its surface; but below ground
there's ice. Scientists found this ice a few years ago using satellite images and gamma ray
technology.

So one of the main aims of the Phoenix mission is to test this ice - and the theory that Mars can
support life.

Professor Boynton again.

WILLIAM BOYNTON: This is a little bit more information in that direction. We know water is a very
important part of life but the main goals of this whole mission is to understand the habitability
of this particular area and to see if Mars might have been habitable in the past for life.

So this is just one very small part of it. We know water is really a necessity for life but other
things need to be found as well and the mission is still working to find some of those other
things.

JENNIFER MACEY: The discovery has excited Mars scientists and enthusiasts.

Dr Jon Clarke from the Australian Centre of Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales is
the vice president of the Mars Society of Australia.

JON CLARKE: We may be able to actually find the traces of it, the actual bodies of micro-organisms,
perhaps are preserved in this ice and we can find out more about that by looking at it.

Of course, maybe there is no life and that will be just as interesting although perhaps not just as
exciting.

JENNIFER MACEY: He says even if researchers don't find past evidence of life - finding water will
help to support future life - in the form of manned missions to Mars or even colonisation of the
Red Planet.

JON CLARKE: We would use on a space mission to Mars perhaps 25 litres of water a day per person and
even with recycling, that is several kilograms of water per day per person. And if you don't have
to bring that from Earth and you can use a local source, then that makes life a lot easier and a
lot cheaper.

JENNIFER MACEY: NASA is now extending the Phoenix mission for another month, to continue testing
soil samples, and to study the Martian weather.

ELEANOR HALL: Jennifer Macey with that report.