Martian soil might not make your garden tomatoes grow plump and juicy, but it probably wouldn't hurt them, either. That's the early conclusion from the Phoenix Mars lander, which has conducted the most thorough analysis of Martian soil ever.
Mission leader Peter Smith explains what its instruments have found:
SMITH: We're seeing that there's nutrients in the soil in the way of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. We see chlorides, which leads you to think that there's sodium chloride or magnesium chloride, different kinds of salts. And we're seeing an interesting and unexpected material, perchlorate. On the earth, we used to get our fertilizer from Chile. They have vast nitrate deposits, so they make ammonium nitrate, which we use for fertilizer. Because perchlorate is often formed in the same place as the nitrate, you often get perchlorate mixed in with your fertilizer, so we put it under our plants as a fertilizer and it really doesn't hurt anything. So perchlorate doesn't necessarily mean that you can't have life.
During its first few months of operation, though, Phoenix found no evidence of the chemistry of life. But its analysis is still going on, says mission scientist William Boynton.
BOYNTON: So the important thing is to just see if the conditions are such that the organic molcules can survive. If organic molecules can't survive, then that says ... that at least in this particular environment, it may not be so good for life. But until we get those data, we won't really know for sure.
More about Phoenix tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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