Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 14:33 UK

Martian soil 'could support life'

A microscopic view of fine-grained material at the tip of the Phoenix Mars Lander's robotic arm scoop, June 2008
Analysis of the soil has surprised and delighted Nasa scientists

Martian soil appears to contain sufficient nutrients to support life - or, at least, asparagus - Nasa scientists believe.

Preliminary analysis by the $420m (£210m) Phoenix Mars Lander mission on the planet's soil found it to be much more alkaline than expected.

Scientists working on the spacecraft project said they were "flabbergasted" by the discovery.

The find has raised hopes conditions on Mars may be favourable for life.

"We basically have found what appears to be the requirements, the nutrients, to support life, whether past, present or future," said Tufts University's Professor Sam Kounaves.

The researcher is the "wet chemistry" lead on the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (Meca) suite of instruments.

Exciting data

Although he said further tests would have to be conducted, Professor Kounaves said the soil seemed "very friendly… there is nothing about it that is toxic".

We were all flabbergasted at the data we got back
Sam Kounaves, Tufts University

"It is the type of soil you would probably have in your backyard - you know, alkaline. You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well."

As well as being far less acidic than anticipated, the soil was also found to contain traces of magnesium, sodium, potassium and other elements.

"We were all flabbergasted at the data we got back," said Professor Kounaves. "It is very exciting for us."

The analysis is based on a cubic centimetre of soil scooped from 2.5cm (one inch) below Mars' surface by the lander's robotic arm.

The sample was then tested using a technique that involves mixing the soil with water brought from Earth and heating the sample in one of the lander's eight ovens.

After a 10-month flight from Earth, Phoenix touched down successfully on Mars' northern plains on 25 May.

The Arctic location where Phoenix landed is thought to hold large stores of water-ice just below the surface.

Last week, scientists said they were positive there was ice at the landing location after eight dice-sized chunks were seen to sublimate (turn straight from solid to vapour) away in a series of photographs.

Infographic, BBC
Phoenix is undertaking a three-month study of Mars' geological history




SEE ALSO
Phoenix starts to get some reward
13 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Mars sprinkle test yields results
11 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Phoenix tries shake and sprinkle
10 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Martian soil frustrates Phoenix
07 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Glitch delays Mars lander's dig
05 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Mars lander flexes its robot arm
29 May 08 |  Science/Nature
Mars lander is 'in good health'
27 May 08 |  Science/Nature
In pictures: Mars landing
26 May 08 |  In Pictures
Phoenix diary: Mission to Mars
09 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific