Follow the water. That's the standing order for all of NASA's missions to Mars. Water's a key ingredient for life, so finding it is a key goal in understanding whether Mars could have sustained life in its past -- and might do so even today.
The Phoenix lander followed that order to perfection. As mission leader Peter Smith explains, it found frozen water as soon as it touched down.
SMITH: One of the interesting things was, as we landed, the thrusters blew away the soil and revealed what we named immediately "holy cow" -- a sheet of ice right under the lander. [10.5]
Scientists weren't especially surprised by the discovery, says mission scientist Michael Hecht.
HECHT: Mars is actually a much wetter planet than I think most people realize. And I say "wet" in the sense of ice, not in the sense of liquid water. There's a great deal of H2O on the planet. [:10]
There's ice in the planet's polar caps and water vapor in the atmosphere. Pictures from orbit show what appear to be huge dry riverbeds. And earlier landers found minerals and rock formations that must have formed in a watery environment.
But Phoenix did what no mission had done before: It picked up some of the ice and analyzed it in a small chemical laboratory. The readings confirmed that there really is water on Mars.
HECHT: Were we surprised that it was exactly where it was predicted? Perhaps not. Were we thrilled? Yes. And we really feel that now we've done everything but physically going there and putting it in a gin and tonic. [:11]
That's a job for a future mission. We'll have more about the Phoenix mission tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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