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Phoenix lander sucks up water on Mars

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NASA has extended the Mars Rover mission by five weeks after confirming it had found water in a soil sample on the rocky red planet.

Evidence of water on Mars had already been picked up by the Odyssey orbiter, and Phoenix had spotted evidence of the sublimation of water last month.

However, the space jockeys confirmed yesterday that the Phoenix Mars Lander have now identified water in a soil sample. Or, as William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, puts it: “This is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

The soil sample in question, came from a trench approximately two inches deep - that’s the point at which the robotic arm first hit a hard layer of frozen soil. The icy soil has caused problems for the lander, with samples twice getting stuck in the scoop.

The sample analysed on Wednesday was exposed to the air, allowing some of the water to vaporise, and making the soil easier to handle.

With the presence of water confirmed – not to mention touched and tasted – NASA has decided to fund the operation through to the end of September, extending the 90-day “prime mission” by five weeks.

“Phoenix is healthy and the projections for solar power look good, so we want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

While finding water on Mars might seem to be enough of a highlight for the mission, NASA said it was trying to determine whether the water ice ever thaws enough to be available for biology and if carbon-containing chemicals and other raw materials for life are present. Which would really prompt some soul-searching back on Earth. ®

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