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Finding ice beneath the surface of Mars – what the Phoenix mission achieved

Phoenix- landerThere’s a timely review of the achievements of the Phoenix Mars lander five years after it touched down on the red planet.  Dr Tom Pike of Imperial College, London, and one of the mission team, reports on some of the findings the robotic spacecraft accomplished.  It touched down in the polar region, unlike other landers, and used a mechanical arm to dig down below the surface.  Photographs showed sub-surface ice revealed, ice that was seen to melt away.

ice-on-marsCrucially the probe also revealed the presence of significant quantities of percholorates in the Martian soil, a finding later confirmed by the Curiosity mission.  Since these chemicals are very soluble, it indicates that there has been no major surface water on Mars for a long period of time.  This in turn suggests that if we do find life on Mars it might not be on the surface but beneath it.

Phoenix also enabled us for the first time to see snow falling on Mars, and it looks from orbit as though it might have been a winter snowfall that finally snapped its solar panels and stopped it working as the Martian winter set in.  Dr Pike’s work goes on, however, and we must wish him well on the next Mars mission, Insight, that he’s involved in, scheduled for a launch in 2016.

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