Phoenix Lander Searches Dirt Samples for Martian Ice

The small Martian dirt sample includes white matter that intrigues NASA scientists because they believe it could be salt left behind by evaporated water.

Scraped from the surface of Mars by the lander’s robotic arm, the soil will be deposited into the craft’s Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) for study.

“We are very curious whether the ice we think is just under the surface has melted and modified the soil,” Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith said.

Scientists will decide how much water and what minerals make up the dirt at the arctic circle of Mars.

“Salt would be very interesting because that’s what is left behind as water evaporates. That would be a very nice discovery, particularly if we knew exactly which salts they were,” Smith said.

Scientists hope to figure out if Mars ever supported life through evidence of water.

Phoenix has already returned the highest-resolution pictures ever taken of dust and sand on the surface of another planet. It used an optical microscope that showed particles as small as one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. The robotic camera has also sent back images of what appears to be exposed ice.