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Martian soil good enough for asparagus

Latest update : 2008-07-01

Latest results from the US Phoenix Mars lander revealed Thursday that vegetables such as asparagus could grow on Mars, thanks to the presence of mineral nutrients in the soil.

Martian dirt is apparently good enough for asparagus to grow in, NASA scientists said Thursday, as they announced the results of a soil analysis collected by the US Phoenix Mars lander.
  
"There is nothing about the soil that would preclude life. In fact it seems very friendly," said Samuel Kounaves, the project's lead chemist at the University of Arizona in a telephone press conference.
  
"The soil you have there is the type of soil you have in your backyard," said Kounaves. "You may be able to grow asparagus very well."
  
The analysis is based on a cubic centimeter of soil scooped up by the lander's robotic arm and introduced into one of its eight ovens, where it was gradually heated up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.
  
Kounaves said his team was "flabbergasted" at the results that came back.
  
"We basically have found what appears to be the requirements of the nutrients to support life, past, present or future," said Kounaves.
  
Scientists found elements in the soil that included magnesium, potassium and sodium. "There are probably other mineral species, we are still working on data," he said.
  
Kounaves said the analysis results are "one more piece of evidence that there were liquid water action at some point in the history of Mars."
  
"It's very similar to the soil analysis results we got from some dried places on Earth -- this is the very exciting part," Kounaves said.
  
The sample is from the surface soil that scientists say covers a layer of ice.
  
On June 20 NASA scientists announced that the Phoenix Mars lander confirmed a long-held belief that ice is hiding under the surface in the Red Planet's northern region.
  
The lander's robotic arm started digging trenches into Martian soil after touching down near the planet's north pole on May 25, revealing a white substance that scientists had said was ice.
  
"The specific data coming out of instrument has just been spectacular," said William Boynton from the University of Arizona, the lead Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) scientist.
  
Scientists found no ice in the sample -- not surprising, Boyton said, because it was a surface sample and had been sitting on the TEGA oven for several days, during which time any ice would have evaporated.
  
Boyton said that scientists had detected small amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) on the surface of the soil particles. This carbon dioxide was released at low temperature in the furnace, while at higher temperatures, the TEGA oven detected a "modest" amount of vapor.
  
"What we can say now is that the soil clearly has interacted with water in the past, but we don't know whether that interaction occurred in this particular area in the northern region or if it might have happen elsewhere" and the soil blown over to the site where the Phoenix landed.
  
NASA scientists said they will analyze ice fragments in the TEGA oven over the next weeks.
  
If the ice contains impurities the results could speak volumes of the climate history in that area of the Red Planet.
  
Mars is currently too cold for water to flow, but it is possible that in a distant past the polar regions saw higher temperatures, according to the scientists.
  
Phoenix's mission is to search for water and organic components to see if a primitive form of life was possible on Mars.
  
The Phoenix probe does not have the instrument necessary to detect micro-organisms.

Date created : 2008-06-29

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