Saturday science subject: Phoenix confirms, analyzes Martian water

— 11:16 AM on August 2, 2008

Phoenix has been busy. Just over two months after arriving on the red planet, the NASA lander has scooped out, identified, and analyzed its very first piece of Martian water ice. William Boynton, who led development on the lander's gas analyzers, explains in the official NASA announcement, "We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

The New Scientist describes the process as follows:

On Wednesday, Phoenix's robotic arm scooped out a sample of dirt from a 5-centimetre deep trench called "Snow White", which it began digging in June. The soil was transferred to one of the lander's eight TEGA (Thermal Evolved-Gas Analyzer) ovens and slowly warmed to 2 °Celsius (36 °Fahrenheit).

When the temperature reached 0 °C (32 °F), the instrument had to add extra heat to continue warming the sample – the signature of frozen ice melting. TEGA's mass spectrometer also directly detected minute traces of water.

Speaking at a televised press conference, Boynton put on a pointy green hat and gave the sample its official fairy tale name: "Wicked Witch." . . . "We named it after the witch from Hansel and Gretel, who saw her final demise by being pushed into an oven," said Boynton.

The fairytale naming scheme seems pretty prevalent in this mission. Check out how NASA mapped out Phoenix's working area:

Source: NASA.

In addition to the discovery, NASA has announced that the Phoenix mission will go on five weeks longer than planned. "With enticing results so far and the spacecraft in good shape, NASA also announced operational funding for the mission will extend through Sept. 30," the agency says.

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