Chemicals on Mars: Possible evidence of life?

Peter Smith: We built robotic missions that are kind of human-like – an arm, taste, sense of smell, touch. All of these sensors are very similar to human senses and they are looking for chemicals on Mars.

That’s Peter Smith, Principal Investigator of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission. Phoenix is a robotic lander that probed Mars for signs of life in 2008, and found some possible evidence in the planet’s soil.

Peter Smith: What we’re seeing is an array of chemicals that on the Earth would be considered important for life.

Phoenix explored the northern polar region of Mars, and found traces of a salt there, called ‘perchlorate.’

Peter Smith: Perchlorate is an energy source for life on the Earth. And we see a range of salts that we think of as nutrients. You know, you get them in your mineral pill in the morning. And so these are the kind of systems that we would expect on the Earth would be habitable.

In addition, Phoenix was the first spacecraft ever to touch frozen water on another planet. Smith said the kinds of minerals found by Phoenix are typically created by liquid water. There’s currently no liquid water at the Mars exploration site, so it’s possible these minerals blew in from another part of the planet. More analysis and lab work here on Earth might determine whether – as recently as a few million years ago – Mars had a wet environment, friendly to life.

Our thanks to:
Peter Smith
Principal Investigator, Phoenix Mars Mission
University of Arizona

March 9, 2009

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