Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Did Mars lander destroy evidence of life?

Did the Phoenix Mars Landers test for organics in Martian soil actually destroy any trace of them? That's a possibility raised by researchers from NASA's Johnson Space Center and recently presented at a planetary science conference.

A short article in New Scientist magazine reports that the Lander found perchlorates in the soil. "When heated to hundreds of degrees Celsius they release a lot of oxygen, which tends to cause any nearby combustible material to burn."

"The Phoenix and Viking landers looked for organic molecules by heating soil samples to similarly high temperatures to evaporate them and analyse them in gas form. When Douglas Ming of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and colleagues tried heating organics and perchlorates like this on Earth, the resulting combustion left no trace of organics behind."

Sounds like a redesign of test techniques on future probes is in order.

[right, the sample scoop on the Lander is poised over the partially open door of the oven. Credit, NASA /JPL-Caltech /University of Arizona /Texas A&M University]

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