Vast amounts of ice lie just below the surface of Mars — especially in the planet’s polar regions. A spacecraft that landed on Mars 10 years ago analyzed the ice with a chemical laboratory, confirming that it really was frozen water.
The Phoenix Mars lander touched down in the northern plains on May 25th, 2008, not far from the polar ice cap. The region was flat and featureless, with no mountains or valleys in sight.
Phoenix measured wind speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, and temperatures as low as 145 below. And it discovered that snow falls from thin clouds of frozen water high in the atmosphere.
Its main job, though, was to study the role of water in the region’s geology, and to determine whether the Martian surface could sustain microscopic life.
Using a robotic arm to dig into the orange dirt, it found a layer of almost pure ice just a few inches down. It dumped some of the dirt and ice into on-board laboratories. The analyses found that the chemistry of the dirt would not be friendly to microbes.
Phoenix operated until the Sun dipped too low in the sky to charge its batteries. Yet it’s still contributing to our understanding of the Red Planet. Earlier this year, a Mars orbiter snapped a picture of the lander and the shell that protected it during reentry. Dark streaks caused by the lander’s rocket engines had disappeared, and the shell was almost gone, too — covered up by wind-blown dust on the frigid plains of Mars.
Script by Damond Benningfield