NASA: Tests show Martian soil can support life

Scientists find elements that could support the growing of asparagus or turnips

Finding more familiar than alien elements, NASA scientists Thursday announced that their initial analysis found that Martian soil could support life.

Scientists on Wednesday received the first test results from the wet chemistry laboratory on the Mars Lander, which is using a robotic arm to dig a shallow trench and then scoop up and analyze soil samples on the northern pole of the planet. Earlier this week, the microscopic imager on the Mars Lander sent back pictures of the trench, dubbed Wonderland, that contained the tested soil.

NASA researchers now are now waiting to analyze data set to come down from one of the Lander's eight ovens, which will heat the matter so the gases that are emitted from it can be analyzed.

"We were all very flabbergasted at the data we got back [from the wet chemistry tests]," said Samuel Kounaves, a professor at Tufts University and a research affiliate with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We basically have found what appears to be the requirements to support life, whether in the past, present or future. We have elements that you might find in your back yard."

Kounaves said in a conference call with the media that, though the findings are preliminary, they've found the minerals that are essential to life in the Martian soil. The dirt there is very alkaline, with a pH level of between eight and nine. They've also found magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride. They're still waiting on analysis regarding evidence of sulfate in the soil.

The minerals in the Martian soil, according to Kounaves, are typical of soils here on Earth.

"Some kinds of Earth life would be happy to live in these soils," he added. "Asparagus, green beans and turnips love alkaline soils."

William Boynton, a professor at the University of Arizona and a co-investigator with the Mars mission, noted that they received interesting findings in an earlier oven test on a different patch of soil. In that test, when the soil was heated to about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, small amounts of carbon dioxide and water vapor were released. That, he said, shows that there had been water there in the past.

"There's nothing about it that's toxic. If you had it here, you could grow something in it," said Kounaves. "We found that a broader range of life could grow there. It allows for the possibility for an environment like you would find on Earth, with a lot of different organisms. The amazing thing about Mars is not that it's not an alien world, but it's actually quite familiar."

Last week, NASA scientists reported that they had found ice on the Martian north pole.

Dice-size pieces of whitish matter dug up in a trench on the Martian north pole appears to be ice, according to Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Dug up in a 7-to 8-cm deep trench by the Lander's robotic arm, the material disappeared after being exposed to sunlight, leading scientists to believe it was ice that simply melted.

The chunks were left at the bottom of a trench that NASA engineers have dubbed "Dodo-Goldilocks" on June 15, during the 20th Martian day since landing. Several chunks were gone when the Phoenix Lander examined the trench about four days later.

"If they're ice deposits, they should disappear because water ice is not stable on the surface of Mars at that latitude," said Arvidson in a previous interview. "As soon as the sun hit that material, it disappeared. It's ice. This is why we went, so it's pretty exciting."

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