for National Geographic News
NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander quenched a longtime scientific thirst yesterday when it detected water in a soil sample—the first time liquid water on another planet has been touched or "tasted."
The craft obtained water by heating an icy soil sample in its "bake and sniff" oven, called the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer. "TEGA" identifies substances by heating them and analyzing the resulting vapors.
"We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for TEGA.
"We've now finally touched it and tasted it—and from my standpoint it tastes very fine."
Search for Life-Friendly Conditions
The successful sampling completes one of the Phoenix mission's core objectives—confirming that water ice does indeed exist near the Martian north pole.
Now the mission has been extended through September 30 to allow the lander to analyze that water ice and soil for signs of organic materials and for conditions suitable for life, NASA announced.
The additional five weeks of operation will cost some two million U.S. dollars.
Principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, reported that all of Phoenix's instruments are healthy. A troublesome short circuit problem appears to have been resolved.
"We're going to complete the science that we set out to complete," he said of the mission's extended time. "But we have lots more to explore within reach of our robotic arm."
Phoenix's landing site was chosen because orbital observations suggested the locale was rich in ice. After enduring a descent phase known as the "seven minutes of terror," the craft landed on May 25 on a solid layer of ice covered by only a few inches of sticky Martian soil.
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