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NASA hails Phoenix wet chemistry results

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NASA scientists are pretty excited about the initial results of the Phoenix Mars lander's "flawless" first wet chemistry experiment which has revealed the Red Planet's soil to be "a close analog to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica", as wet chemistry lead investigator Sam Kounaves put it.

With 80 per cent of said test - carried out in the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) - done and dusted, Kounaves explained: "The alkalinity of the soil at this location is definitely striking. At this specific location, one-inch into the surface layer, the soil is very basic, with a pH of between eight and nine. We also found a variety of components of salts that we haven't had time to analyze and identify yet, but that include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.

"This is more evidence for water because salts are there. We also found a reasonable number of nutrients, or chemicals needed by life as we know it. Over time, I've come to the conclusion that the amazing thing about Mars is not that it's an alien world, but that in many aspects, like mineralogy, it's very much like Earth."

Image of Martian soil on the tip of the Robotic Arm scoop. Pic: NASA

So much so, in fact, that Kounaves suggested future colonists might be able to use the Martian dirt around Phoenix (seen above at the tip of the Robotic Arm scoop) "to grow asparagus very well".

While the alkalinity of the soil sample will please asparagonauts, it'll come as a blow to strawberry-loving interplanetary gardeners, since the fruit requires somwhat more acidity. However, NASA notes that elsewhere on the Martian surface may prove suitable for future cultivation of Wimbledon's favourite punnet-filler.*

Elsewhere on Phoenix, meanwhile, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) has "baked its first soil sample to 1,000°C (1,800°F)", and scientists have "begun analyzing the gases released at a range of temperatures to identify the chemical make-up of soil and ice".

Lead TEGA boffin, William Boynton of the University of Arizona, described the preliminary results coming out of the test as "spectacular", although complete analysis will take several weeks.

He said: "At this point, we can say that the soil has clearly interacted with water in the past. We don't know whether that interaction occurred in this particular area in the northern polar region, or whether it might have happened elsewhere and blown up to this area as dust." ®

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*Indeed, we can imagine this exchange at Wimbledon 2043: "Ten thousand quid for a punnet of strawberries? You must be bloody joking." "Yeah, well love, these are yer top-notch Martian strawberries - three quid a crate at source, but the transport costs are astronomical..."

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