Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Dirt on Mars' Soil: More Suitable for Life Than Thought

Researchers have long suspected that the Martian surface is packed full of oxidizing compounds, which could make it difficult for complex molecules like organic chemicals — the building blocks of life as we know it — to exist. But the new study, which analyzed data gathered by NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander, suggests that's not the case.

"Although there may be some small amounts of oxidants in the soil, the bulk material is actually quite benign," said lead study author Richard Quinn of NASA's Ames Research Center and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "It's very similar to moderate soils that we find on Earth."

Astrobiologists have long been interested in characterizing soils on Mars, to help determine whether life could ever have gotten a foothold on the Red Planet. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life ]

NASA's $420 million Phoenix mission has given them a lot to ponder in this regard. The Phoenix lander touched down near the Martian north pole in late May 2008, then gathered a variety of observations for the next five months.

Phoenix is most famous for confirming the existence of water ice on Mars, but it also made a lot of interesting soil measurements. One of those was the Mars dirt's acidity, or pH, level.

"People really didn't know what the pH was going to be," Quinn told SPACE.com. "A lot of people believed that the soils would be very acidic."

But just a month or so into its mission, Phoenix found that the dirt at its landing site was mildly basic, with a pH around 7.7. The lander also detected several chemicals that could serve as nutrients for life-forms, including magnesium, potassium and chloride.

These discoveries intrigued scientists, suggesting that Martian soil is perhaps more hospitable to microbial life than they had thought. And the new results provide further evidence along those lines.

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